The Framers Envisioned a Data-Driven Congress. Really!

Open Data

The Framers Envisioned a Data-Driven Congress. Really!

What would the United States look like without the Homestead Act, Civil Rights Acts, or Social Security Act? Laws shape society. For better or for worse, the work of Congress has significant consequences for us all.

Considering this significance, every American should be well-informed about the federal legislative process. Our Constitution itself envisions this. The Constitution contains the word “publish” only twice. One of those two mentions is Article I, Section 5, requiring Congress to publish a journal of its proceedings.

Basic civics and our Constitution both declare: Open, public discussion should surround each of our laws, from the first introduction of a legislative proposal all the way to its final enrollment as a statute. To support such discussion, Americans need access to full information about their legislative process, published using the latest information technologies.

When Constitutional government began in 1789, printing presses and horseback relays were the most modern way to disseminate information. Today, according to AOL co-founder Steve Case, the Internet is entering its mature “third wave” of development, transforming established industries, including government – once those industries make their information electronically transparent.

Unfortunately, legislative information is not electronically transparent – yet.

To be sure, Congress has been publishing its bills and resolutions online for twenty years. But most of that information is available only as plain text – not the richly structured data that could allow automatic redlining, easier drafting, and even automated compliance.

But if Congress adopted a consistent structured data format for all legislative information, it could bring the Constitution’s goals into the Internet age. Here’s what this would mean for the legislative process:

1. Automatic Redlining. Ari Hershowitz of Xcential, who “help[s] Congress write laws on the computer, instead of with pens, scissors, and glue,” was asked if he could electronically compare two patent bills before Congress.

His short answer: No, not without lots of manual translation, because the bills were not both available in a structured data format.

Relying on plain-text alone, only lawyers can understand how bills before Congress, especially complex ones, compare to one another, or how they would amend existing laws. But a common data format for bills, amendments, resolutions, laws, and the underlying U.S. Code would change that. A common format would allow software to display those impacts and comparisons in an understandable way.

automatic redlining
A common data format would enable software to automatically show how bills would amend existing laws.


2. Easier Drafting. A common legislative data format would allow civic developers to make life easier for the legislators themselves (and their overworked staff).

Tech experts who also understand the legislative process may be rare, but they do exist – people like Josh Tauberer and Seamus Kraft, who developed GovTrack and Madison, respectively. If legislative information were more predictably organized, Josh, Seamus, and co. could create tools to help Congress do its job better.

For instance, the executive branch is in the middle of adopting a common data format for all of its spending information, as required under the DATA Act of 2014. (This is the only other place where the Constitution uses the word “publish”: Article I, Section 9, says that “Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”)

The Treasury Department has announced its long-term DATA Act goal is to electronically connect appropriations bills to this information, so that it’s possible to track how the money from each appropriations line item goes through its whole life cycle, all the way to its final disbursement to contractors and subcontractors.


connecting approps and spending
The Treasury Department wants to electronically connect appropriations line items to the full life cycle of federal spending data.


Imagine if each member of Congress could know how every line item in last year’s appropriations was spent – without her staff needing to do weeks of heavy research. A common format could allow civic developers to build an app for that.

3. Automated compliance. What if companies’ existing business and accounting software could automatically recognize proposed legal changes in Congress, anticipate how the changes might affect operations, and respond to those changes if they became law?

This is not science fiction. Projects to automate compliance in this manner are underway at the Dutch immigration authority and at Freddie Mac, the semi-federal mortgage giant.

If Congress adopted a common legislative data format, business software could help the private sector comply with laws – at costs much cheaper than today’s lawyers’ fees.

Congress has already started to require the executive branch to adopt structured data formats for spending, financial disclosure, and nonprofit data. It’s time to do the same for Congress’ own legislative process.

The right data format already exists. It’s called the U.S. Legislative Model, and it’s currently being used by the Congressional office that compiles laws into the U.S. Code. Congress just needs to choose to use the U.S. Legislative Model consistently, across all its offices and systems.

Transforming our legislative process from disconnected documents into transparent data isn’t just a needful Congressional IT project. Our 226-year experiment in representative democracy can’t continue into the Internet age without it.

To connect with the policymakers and tech experts seeking to transform legislative data, join our Data Transparency Breakfast on July 28! Details and registration here.