The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

10. The Congressional Record

Maintaining the Veracity of a Historical Document

Recommendation Summary

The Congressional Record should accurately document what occurs on the House floor, as required by law 78 . While still providing space for extended remarks, the House should support an update in procedures to ensure that the Congressional Record can be used to ascertain what has actually been said on the floor. The Joint Committee on Printing should be directed (and funded) to uphold standards of accuracy, to educate members and staff about updated procedures and to publish the Record in a manner that clearly distinguishes extended remarks from words that were actually spoken.

Background on the Congressional Record

The Congressional Record is the constitutionally provisioned official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It is published under the supervision of the Joint Committee on Printing (JCP) and printed and issued by the United States Government Printing Office.

In order to get the Record printed and available to members for the next day of business, a daily Record is produced. By custom and by the rules of each House, members can “revise and extend� the remarks they actually made on the floor before the debates are published in the daily Record and in the final Congressional Record. The final, paper-bound Record takes several years to be published.

The practice of allowing the Record to be revised led to the appearance in the Record of speeches never actually delivered on the floor of the House or the Senate, including in the sections purported to be verbatim reports of debates. Most notably, a speech made by the late Rep. Hale Boggs was included in the Record as if he were actually on the floor debating the issue—two days after he was killed in a plane crash in Alaska. 79

The Boggs incident was publicized in a letter published in Reader’s Digest in the early 1980s. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr., chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing, who had been campaigning for the televising of the floor debate, seized upon this letter to persuade the Joint Committee on Printing to adopt a rule whereby any revised remarks should be preceded by a bullet symbol or marked in some other way. Mathias was chairman of the Joint Committee on Printing (97th and 99th Congresses), member of the Joint Committee on the Library (98th and 99th Congresses) and chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules and Administration (97th to 99th Congresses).

78 44 U.S.C. § 901
79 Boggs was killed on Oct. 16, 1972. He appears in the Congressional Record in the entry for Oct. 18, 1972. See http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=b000594

The code stipulating that the Congressional Record be “substantially a verbatim report of proceedings� was revised to state that:

The Joint Committee on Printing shall control the arrangement and style of the Congressional Record, and while providing that it shall be substantially a verbatim report of proceedings, shall take all needed action for the reduction of unnecessary bulk. 80

The Joint Committee on Printing, which was tasked with the independent duty to enforce the rules of the Congressional Record, had roughly 22 full-time staff members until 1995. In 1995 the Joint Committee on Printing staff was reduced to just two people—one staffer on the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and another on the Committee on House Administration—to oversee the accurate editing of the Congressional Record.

There have been serious lapses in enforcing the “substantially verbatim� rule for the Congressional Record. Comparing actual video footage of floor proceedings with the Congressional Record has revealed widespread disregard for the “substantially verbatim� requirement spelled out in the U.S. Code. Most recently, Reason magazine featured an article titled “The Imaginary Adventures of the US Senate� 81 detailing the phantom speeches that appear in the Congressional Record but that were never delivered on the floor.

The Importance of an Accurate Congressional Record

Promoting a Congressional Record that accurately distinguishes between words actually spoken and those appended is more than a matter of truthful historical preservation. The Congressional Record is a central cultural, legal and political document. Standards regarding the Congressional Record’s production should be accorded the same respect as the institutions and traditions governing speaking on the House floor. Beyond holding the reality of statements made on the House floor in special regard, the public also has an interest in maintaining an accurate Congressional Record.

The Congressional Record serves to inform people of the actual spoken comments by their elected officials. Citizens should be able to determine if their elected representatives, after seeing the votes of their colleagues, went back to the Congressional Record and edited what they said about a proposed legislation. The public should also be able to determine whether or not their elected members participated in a given debate.

The Congressional Record also provides guidance to courts that use it to discern legislative intent. Courts often look to legislative intent to interpret ambiguous or incomplete legislation. For example, the principle that courts should not interpret a statute to produce absurd or unintended results will often be informed by evidence of what the proponents of a bill stated about the objectives to be achieved by the statute. If the proponents of a bill did not actually state the objectives during the floor debate, and only later inserted them, then these statements could not have affected the vote on the legislation, and thus the courts may choose to disregard them.

80 44 U.S.C. § 901

A further use of an accurately transcribed Congressional Record would be to provide a source for text to be coupled with video of the House floor. With access to a reliable transcript of what is spoken on the floor—labeled and indexed by speaker—new video technology can enable constituents to search through floor statements by topic or keyword. By linking sections of the Congressional Record to floor video, a useful and accessible presentation of floor speeches can be created. ClickTV and MetaVid are working to develop the technology that makes this video-with-text presentation possible. 82

Recommendations for the Congressional Record

To ensure a substantially verbatim Congressional Record:

•The Joint Committee on Printing should be adequately staffed and funded to properly oversee the revision process, and have its own offices to ensure that it can fulfill their increased responsibilities.

•The committee should distribute a booklet to all staffs of senators and representatives explaining guidelines regarding the Congressional Record and showing examples of proper procedure for correcting misattributions and typographical errors.

•Alternate methods for denoting extensions of remarks should be investigated. Instead of changes in font or the addition of a dot, the meaning of which may be opaque to the reader, notations that are clearly readable and searchable in electronic format should be utilized. Making the Congressional Record machine-readable could be achieved through XML, or by using clear, standardized tags such as [INSERTED COMMENTS] or [EXTENSIONS OF COMMENTS].

•The Joint Committee on Printing should notify senators and representatives who have had speeches in the Congressional Record that were not actually delivered on the floor and that were not denoted with a dot or any other font change, to make them aware of the rule that inserted speeches either need to be clearly marked or should be in the Extended Remarks section of the Congressional Record.

82 http://www.click.tv/ , http://metavid.ucsc.edu/

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