Birds of a Feather: What’s In The “DISCLOSE” Bills

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Last week, legislation responding to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was introduced in Congress. The Senate and House versions of the legislation, introduced by lead authors Senator Schumer and Representative Van Hollen, respectively, reportedly differ, although it’s difficult to gauge the extent at this time. On its face, the Senate version is 10 pages longer than its House counterpart. The reason for the delay in public access has to do with how Congress makes its legislative information available online. (As a side note, Sunlight’s response to the introduction of the DISCLOSE Act, a.k.a. “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections,” is here.)

The House version (HR 5175) was available on Friday from THOMAS, the online repository of Congressional legislative information, one day after it was introduced. The Senate version (S. 3295) is still unavailable from THOMAS, as of 10:50am on Monday, 4 days after introduction. When you click on the link for the legislation, you get the following note:

Bills are generally sent to the Library of Congress from the Government Printing Office a day or two after they are introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. Delays can occur when there are a large number of bills to prepare or when a very large bill has to be printed.

PDF versions of the House and Senate bills became available elsewhere on the web within 24 hours (see, e.g., ElectionLawBlog). The legislation is prepared in XML, so it’s unclear what has caused the delay of the official release on THOMAS of the Senate version. (These kinds of delays are, alas, common on THOMAS.)

When the Library of Congress finally publishes the Senate version online, both documents will be available in XML format (in addition to other formats). What that means is that some clever person can run a comparison of the two documents that will identify how the versions differ. It would be nice if THOMAS would have this comparative feature as well. At some point, for the legislation to become law, the House and Senate will have to reconcile their differences.

When the Senate version joins the House version online, it will illustrate the point that my colleague Clay Johnson often articulates: government documents should be made available online in real time and in a machine readable formats; he would add that publication in PDF format alone is usually insufficient. Publishing the DISCLOSE Act on THOMAS in a machine-readable format will help disclose what’s in the DISCLOSE bills.

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  • It seems to me that your conjecture that “some clever person can run a comparison of the two documents that will identify how the versions differ” is, at best wishful thinking. Dreaming that THOMAS could “have this comparative feature” seems to be the same.

    The kinds of comparisions you’re describing – if I understand your idea correctly – would be very difficult to pull off (and thus unlikely to pop up any time soon).

    Or am I missing something important?

  • Daniel Schuman

    Terry,

    It’s actually not that technically difficult to do, and I’ve been chatting with some folks about doing so. The technique is already used to compare different versions of the same bill. See OpenCongress for examples.

  • Again, maybe I’m misunderstanding your point (and if so, I apologize for wasting your time) – because it seems to me to be quite challenging, to say the least.

    But if you could point me to some specific automated comparison examples, I’d be be very appreciative. If someone has figured out how to actually do this, I’d be very interested in learning about them.

  • What Daniel referring to isn’t a comparison of provisions but just a pure text comparison. It’s called a diff and it’s used in computer programming all the time. Here’s a specific example from OpenCongress. Just click “Show changes” under any bill revision.

    http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h4872/text

  • Whatever the outcome of the comparison, let’s hope something gets passed. The Supreme Court decision was unbelievable – to equate a corporation, run by a small number of people (the board) with a huge amount of money at their disposal, money created by the profit on the products made by employees and the funds of shareholders, none of which are allowed any say in a board decision on supporting a candidate with any of those funds…to equate that with an individual supporting a candidate… Tell me I have it wrong, it is so preposterous! This is the decision of so-called wise men?!