Automatic Redlining for Legislation? Rep. Elise Stefanik Wants to Make it Happen


In real life, document redlining is normal. If you’re a student or a knowledge worker, you probably use redlines in Microsoft Word or other tools to track changes and compare drafts.

But in Congress, document redlining is not normal.

On their way to death or passage – usually death – pieces of legislation are usually amended many times. You can track a bill’s progress on Congress.gov. But you can’t see how each version changed from the last one.

To redline a bill from its last version, you have to copy-paste both versions into Microsoft Word and run a comparison yourself. And that’s tricky, because page numbers and preambles and formatting don’t line up.

But Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) wants to change that. How? Open data is how.

Rep. Stefanik, joined by Luke Messer (D-IN) introduced the Establishing Digital Interactive Transparency Act (EDIT Act) (H.R. 5493) on June 14th, 2016. The bill is currently pending in the House of Representatives’ Committee on House Administration. When this bill is signed into law, the Library of Congress would be charged with implementation and would have one year to comply.

What will it do?

The main body of the EDIT Act is one short, very sweet sentence:

“In the operation of the Congress.gov website, the Librarian of Congress shall ensure that each version of a bill or resolution which is made available for viewing on the website is presented in a manner which permits the viewer to follow and track online, within the same document, any changes made from previous versions of the bill or resolution.”

Translation: everybody gets a redline!

Imagine having the ability to track and monitor changes to a bill from its initial conception, through committee markup, to the House of Representatives and Senate floor for amendments and voting, all the way to the President’s desk. This would create a truly transparent legislative process. But we aren’t there yet.

How do we get to automatic redlining?

There’s only one way to do this: open data.

Today the House and Senate use documents, not data, to track their magnificent paper trails. In order to create the sort of redline Rep. Stefanik wants, the House and Senate would have to adopt a standardized, open data format for all bills. Bills would have to be drafted, handled, and amended in that format.

The technology already exists.

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 10.13.22 AM

A screen shot of Xcential’s redlining software.

Two years ago, the Clerk of the House and the Office of the Law Revision Counsel set out to create and apply an open data format in the U.S. House Modernization project. Data Coalition member company Xcential is helping to run it. Xcential’s software can natively draft and amend bills using the XML-based U.S. Legislative Model.

But there was no push for the Senate to embrace this project as well. Not, that is, until Rep. Stefanik came along. By requiring all bills to be redlinable on Congress.gov, the EDIT Act is also pushing the modernization effort that is already underway.

The EDIT Act is one piece in the broader effort to move the U.S. federal government technological capabilities into the 21st Century. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014 (DATA Act) (PL 113-101), the nation’s first open data law, mandates all U.S. federal spending information must be be standardized and published in an open, machine-readable format. Just as the DATA Act creates a common format for spending, the EDIT Act requires a common format for legislative materials.

The Statutes at Large Modernization Act (SALMA – HR 4006) is another relevant bipartisan bill. Introduced by Reps. Dave Brat (VA-7-R) and Seth Moulton (MA-6-D), and currently pending in the House of Representatives. SALMA would require a common data format for the Statutes at Large.

What does this mean down the track for open data?

Imagine if spending data (under the DATA Act) and legislative data (after the EDIT Act and SALMA and other reforms) came together.

If Congressional appropriations committees coded their appropriations bills in a consistent open data format, and connected the same to the spending data format that the DATA Act requires – you’d have an electronic connection between every appropriation and the spending it funds.

You could electronically track the consequences of every Congressional spending decision – from appropriation to Treasury allocation to agency obligation, all the way down to payments to contractors and grantees. This is called the “life cycle” of federal spending.

Such a connection would simplify the appropriations process. It would cut back on the hours staffers spend researching. It would give citizens the ability to hold their member of Congress accountable for all the consequences of every spending decision.

Achieving this whole picture is years away.

The immediate challenge is mandating a common data format for legislative materials so redlining is possible. The EDIT Act is one step in the right direction.

Therefore, Data Coalition strongly supports the passage of the EDIT Act.