Earlier this month, the open Congress movement gained a huge endorsement from House Speaker Paul Ryan.
His announcement was the high point of the Committee on House Administration’s annual Legislative Data Transparency Conference. (You can view lots of Twitter commentary at #LDTC16). The all-day conference featured open government advocates, technology solutions providers, legislative lawyers, and Congressional staff managing various modernization projects.
Across all of our policy initiatives, the Data Coalition encourages governments to create and collect data using non-proprietary, machine-readable formats. This conference reinforced that Congress is on track to transform its legislative information from documents into open data.
The House Speaker’s endorsement of the Bulk Data Task Force’s work will further efforts to make legislation, floor summaries, committee work, and the U.S. Code available as structured data. The Speaker even endorsed the technical approach of building out XML-based open data structures across Congress.
“Now we’re working to go further, and publish even more current and past documents in XML. I’ve asked our team to keep moving ahead by publishing all legislative measures in a standard format. That means enrolled measures, public laws, and statues [sic] at large. We want this data to be as accessible as possible throughout the legislative cycle.” – Speaker Ryan
Despite the Speaker’s Endorsement, Legislation is Still Needed
The Speaker’s remarks align with the aims of a trio of House bills the Coalition is supporting. These bills aim to move all legislation and historical US Statutes into machine-readable data formats – while also providing the public with intuitive visualizations to track how bills change as they are amended.
The Searchable Legislation Act (H.R. 5760) by Rep. Justin Amash (MI-3-R) would establish nonproprietary, machine-readable data standards for the creation, transmission, and publication of Congressional and legislative branch agencies. This would include bulk download and electronic searchability features for bills, resolutions, orders, and votes. Many of these advancements are already underway in the House but this bill would legally require modernization in the Senate as well.
The Statutes at Large Modernization Act (SALMA) (H.R. 4006), introduced by Reps. Dave Brat (VA-7-R) and Seth Moulton (MA-6-D), would put all historical federal laws online in a modern machine-readable format. This would make previous laws passed by Congress fully searchable. (For more, read these further resources and a Coalition blog post).
The Establishing Digital Interactive Transparency Act (EDIT Act) (H.R. 5493) recently introduced by Rep. Elise Stefanik (NY-21-R) and Rep. Luke Messer (IN-6-D) would instruct the Library of Congress to open up the legislative process by implementing an intuitive track changes style system for the bills listed on Congress.gov. Such a reform is only possible as legislation is drafted as structured data to begin with. (For more, ead Rep. Stafanik’s press release.)
Despite the Speaker’s exciting endorsement this month, we need these three bills to become law. That’s the only way for the forward-thinking work of the House of Representatives to be applied to the Senate and made permanent for our whole legislative branch.
Achieving an Open Law Vision Requires Transforming Legislative Information from Documents to Structured Data
Congress is poised to transform its legislative information from outdated documents into open, searchable data. If the House and Senate finally adopt a consistent data format for all bills, amendments, passed laws, and legal compilations, then new software could bring greater transparency and more efficient lawmaking.
The functional benefits include automatic redlining between bills and the laws they amend, electronic crosswalks from Congressional budgetary appropriations to the final disbursement of taxpayer funds, and cheaper, easier legal research.
By expressing laws and regulations as data, we’ll ultimately be able to automate compliance. This could reduce the need for layers of lawyers between businesses and the laws they must follow. By first expressing laws and regulations as lines of code, this data will enable greater searchability and the development of automated interpretation tools.
This speaks to a broader issue that arises when the open data movement works in the law and regulation realm. Much work needs to be done convincing governments and policy makers that legal and regulatory information is itself data and therefore needs to be structured and expressed in machine-readable formats. The conference showed that legislative professionals and policymakers in the House understand that point. Their past achievements and diligent work demonstrates that the vision of open law is inevitable.
The Conference Saw Other Exciting Open House Announcements
Other exciting announcements at the conference included:
- An August 1st release of a US House staffer phone and job title directory with mobile device access (responsive design) and bulk data download features. This will allow a much improved understanding of the Congressional staff organization that currently is only available through paid services like CQ, Bloomberg Government, and Leadership Directories.
- The bill information on Congress.gov will now be updated multiple times a day with development notifications provided through a RSS feed so that developers can build better applications to utilize the bulk data.
- After 21 years THOMAS.gov will be retired on July 5th, 2016.
- The Office of Law Revision Counsel has two Committee based projects (Ramseyers and Amendment Impact Program) in the works that will eventually allow the public to track the markups of bills through intuitive red lines real time. That is, you will be able to see how amendments change bills and bills change laws.
If you are still curious about all the technology improvements that have been done to date, you can browse this “Technology Timeline” published by the Clerk of the House. The House has a long history of working to make legislative information truly accessible to the public. There is work to be done but the conference proves that the diligent and steady approach of the US House of Representatives is paying off.