Congress is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Nevertheless, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have enacted their own rules and have allowed substantial public access to their proceedings and records. You can obtain access to congressional debates and other proceedings, but you need to obtain gallery passes from the office of your Senator or Representative. In addition, networks like C-Span televise and archive a large percentage of floor debates. You also may observe congressional committee meetings, notice of which is posted online. The congressional press galleries offer increased access and support services to members of the press who obtain the proper credentials, but the galleries place limitations on who can qualify for credentials. Finally, the U.S. government's own online portals provide congressional information and documents, and private organizations have developed fantastic tools for finding and organizing this information. We provide links to many of these resources below.
Physical Access to the Main Galleries
The galleries of the House and the Senate are open to the public whenever either body is in session, but gallery passes are required. You can obtain gallery passes from the office of your Senator or Representative (usually, any member can provide passes to both houses). There are three Senate office buildings and three House office buildings; to find the Senators and Representatives for your state, visit the Senate directory or the House directory.
Under limited circumstances, the galleries may be closed to the public. When the Senate discusses any business which, in the opinion of a Senator, require secrecy, the Presiding Officer must clear the galleries and keep the doors closed for the duration of the discussion. See Senate Rule XXI. The House galleries may be closed when the Speaker, a member, a delegate, or a resident commissioner indicates that he or she will deliver communications that ought to be kept secret, or when the President sends confidential communications to the House. See House Rule XVII, para. 9 (scroll down).
Access to Committee Meetings
Public access to congressional committees is an important part of government transparency. Committee meetings and hearings generally are open to the public, but members of a committee may vote to close a hearing or meeting under limited circumstances. See Senate Rule XXVI(5)(b) and House Rule XI(g)(1)(2).
As a general rule, Senate committee meetings are open to the public. Senate committees may close a meeting if the matter to be discussed would:
- disclose matters necessary to be kept secret in the interests of national defense or the confidential conduct of the foreign relations of the United States;
- relate solely to matters of committee staff personnel or internal staff management or procedure;
- tend to charge an individual with crime or misconduct, to disgrace or injure the professional standing of an individual, or otherwise to expose an individual to public contempt, or will represent a clearly unwarranted invasion of the privacy of an individual;
- disclose the identity of any informer or law enforcement agent or will disclose any information relating to the investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense that is required to be kept secret in the interests of effective law enforcement;
- disclose information relating to the trade secrets of financial or commercial information under certain circumstances;
- divulge matters required to be kept confidential under other provisions of law or government regulations.
Senate committees must give public notice of their hearings at least one week in advance. The notice must give the date, place, and subject matter of the hearing. See Senate Rule XXVI(4)(a). The Senate Rules do not specify where committees must post this notice, but as a matter of practice they will do so on their websites and in the Congressional Record. For links to Senate committee websites, see the Senate Committee Portal.
Finally, Senate committees and subcommittees must make publicly available through the Internet a video recording, audio recording, or transcript of any meeting not later than twenty-one business days after the meeting occurs. See Senate Rule XXVI(5)(e)(2)(A).
As a general rule, House committee hearings and meetings are open to the public. House committees may vote to close a meeting or hearing if disclosure of matters to be considered would endanger national security, would compromise sensitive law enforcement information, would tend to defame, degrade, or incriminate any person, or otherwise would violate a law or rule of the House. They must announce the date, place, and subject matter of hearings to the public at least a week in advance in the Daily Digest and on their websites. For links to House committee websites, see the House Committee Portal.
Additional Resources for Committees
- The Congressional Directory provides a listing of all currently functioning committees in both the House and Senate. Clicking on each committee will bring you to links to the committee's homepage, any subcommittees, and a schedule of upcoming meetings. Transcripts of hearings are usually available from the committees' websites.
- Capitolhearings.org, a service from C-Span, provides live broadcasts of congressional committee hearings.
- The Open House Project provides additional helpful information on congressional committee meetings.
- The Government Printing Office (GPO) makes available legislative publications that are used in committee meetings.
- Govtrack.us tracks a wide variety of information related to the activities of congressional committees.
Members of the media in possession of proper press credentials are allowed access to the press galleries. Each house administers three galleries, one for press (meaning newspapers), one for periodical press, and one for radio and television. These galleries provide increased access to lawmakers and their staffs, and include workspaces and telephones for press use. Gallery staff will assist reporters and answer phones to take messages for the press while congressional proceedings are going on. The press is also given access to official transcripts, notes, and logs of congressional proceedings, and when lawmakers want to issue press releases, copies are generally handed out to everyone in the press gallery.
The Senate's three galleries are:
- The Senate Daily Press Gallery
- The Senate Radio/TV Gallery
- The Senate Periodical Press Gallery
- There is also a Senate Photographer's Gallery
The House of Representative's three galleries are:
- The House Press Gallery
- The House Radio-Television Correspondents' Gallery
- The House Periodical Press Gallery
Each has its own credentialing process. For example, the Senate Press Gallery requires that the reporter reside in Washington. The Senate Periodical Press Gallery requires that the periodical in question provide coverage of Washington issues on a continuing basis. A common requirement is that the reporter's organization not be engaged in lobbying activities. The House Press and Radio-Television Galleries advise applicants to go through their Senate counterparts for membership. In contrast, the House Periodical Press Gallery credentials its own members as well as its Senate counterpart, and maintains a list of recognized periodicals. See each gallery's web page for their particular applications and restrictions.
The Periodical Press Galleries may be the closest fit for most online publishers. The House application is available online and states that the process can take up to six months. See its Rules and Regulations for details.
The procedures for the Senate Periodical Press Gallery are a bit more ambiguous. It provides two similar but not identical "Rules" pages. One instructs applicants to apply through the House Periodical Press Gallery, and the other instructs applicants to apply through the Senate.
The Open House Project has an excellent entry that details the procedure bloggers and online journalists have gone through to obtain membership in the congressional press galleries. It also describes the battles that have been fought to secure the right of online media to gain access to Congress, including the story about WorldNetDaily's eventually successful fight for credentials.
Access to Congressional Documents
Because Congress is not an agency, congressional documents are not subject to the disclosure requirements of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). For details on FOIA, see the Access to Records from the Federal Government section.
As a matter of practice, however, most documents generated by Congress are publicly available. On occasion, Congress and its committees may designate certain documents, reports, and transcripts confidential or classified. See Goldand v. Central Intelligence Agency, 607 F.2d 339, 346 (D.C. Cir. 1978), which affirms that "Congress has undoubted authority to keep its records secret, authority rooted in the Constitution, longstanding practice, and current congressional rules." For these documents, there is no established method for gaining access to them, and one must request declassification and release of the document from Congress directly.
The vast majority of congressional documents are readily available to the public online. There are a host of extremely useful online resources for accessing transcripts of floor debates, committee hearings, and voting records. Disclosures by members of Congress relating to funding and expenditures, drafts of proposed legislation, and congressional reports are also easily accessible online. Below is a list of some of these resources:
- The Library of Congress’s THOMAS - This official legislation tracker from the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) features the progress of pending and completed legislation. The LOC’s website also contains a number of other resources for congressional information.
- The Congressional Record - The Congressional Record, published daily when Congress is in session, is the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress. It includes the accounts of debates, votes, legislation, and committee meeting announcements. Records are available from 1994 on.
- Congressional Reports - Congressional reports originate from congressional committees and deal with proposed legislation and issues under investigation. The database for the current Congress is updated irregularly, as electronic versions of the documents become available. Reports are available from the 104th Congress (1995) and on.
- Congressional Hearings - Hearings released to the GPO are searchable and browseable on GPO Access. Reports are available from the 104th Congress (1995) and on.
- U.S. House of Representatives House Members' Public Disclosures - Members, officers, and staff of the U.S. House of Representatives are required by certain House Rules and federal statutes to file official documents on travel, income, gifts, etc., and to make this information available to the public. These documents are filed with the Clerk of the House.
- The Government Accountability Office - This is a congressional organization that serves as a watchdog over federal agencies’ policies and expenditures, and maintains online reports of its findings. The GAO site features a searchable database of many of these records.
- The National Archives, Center for Legislative Archives- A useful resource for historical research, the Center for Legislative Archives has documents going back to the First Congress in 1789, some of which are available online.
Resources From Private Organizations
- Opencongress.org - Another bill tracker that also contains biographical information on individual Representatives and Senators and committee information. It also features legislation-oriented blogs and news content.
- The Sunlight Foundation - A foundation founded in January 2006 with the goal of using Internet technologies to help citizens learn more about what their elected representatives are doing and ensure greater transparency and accountability in government. On its website, the foundation provides a list of "Insanely Useful Web Sites" for accessing, tracking, and organizing government information and legislative data.
- LOUIS - A beta release of the Sunlight Foundation that allows users to search seven categories of legislative and executive documents: Congressional Reports, Congressional Record, Congressional Hearings, Federal Register, Presidential Documents, GAO Reports, and Congressional Bills & Resolutions.