Open government data legislation advances in Congress

In recent years, there has been a significant movement to improve public access to government data. Republicans and Democrats alike increasingly recognize that unlocking data can unleash innovation, with major economic and social benefits for businesses, researchers, and the general public. Legislation in support of those goals has been passed in the Senate and is now on a fast track for a floor vote in the House.

The Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act has prospects for passage in this Congress.

The Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act would make more government data freely available online, in machine-readable formats, and discoverable through a federal data catalog. The legislation would codify and build upon then-President Obama’s 2013 executive order. These changes would make it easier for libraries to collect, curate, preserve, and provide services utilizing these valuable data assets.

The legislation was first introduced in 2016 by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ben Sasse (R-NE) and Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Blake Farenthold (R-TX). ALA supported that bill, which was passed in the Senate, but was not taken up in the House.

The Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act was reintroduced this year as S. 760 and H.R. 1770, which ALA again supported. Since then, the bill has been attached to two high-profile pieces of legislation:

  • The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (H.R. 2810). The Senate attached the OPEN Government Data Act to this annual bill authorizing defense activities, which it passed on September 18. However, the House did not include the OPEN Government Data Act in its version of the defense bill. Accordingly, the House and Senate need to reconcile this difference (and many others) before they can send the defense bill to the President. To resolve their different versions of the defense bill, the House and Senate convened a conference committee on Oct. 25, which is aiming to complete its work by Nov. 3 to set up floor votes before Thanksgiving.
  • The Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act (H.R. 4174 / S. 2046). Both the House and the Senate included the OPEN Government Data Act in this new bill, introduced Oct. 31 by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI); Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Kilmer (D-WA), and Farenthold (R-TX); and Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Schatz (D-HI). The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed OPEN as part of the Foundations bill on Nov. 2, clearing the way for it to be voted on by the full House. The Senate has not yet taken action on this bill.

It remains to be seen which of these pieces of legislation will move, when and with which provisions. But when the Senate has passed and the House Speaker has introduced the same legislation, it suggests widespread agreement and significant prospects for passage in one form or another. ALA hopes that Congress will soon send this important legislation to the President’s desk so that taxpayers can make better use of these important public assets.

About Gavin Baker

Gavin Baker is an assistant director of Government Relations. He advocates for library priorities on government information and transparency issues. Previously, he worked at California Common Cause, the Center for Effective Government / OMB Watch and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. Gavin earned his M.S. in library and information studies from Florida State University and his B.A. in political science from the University of Florida.

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