House Rules Committee Looks at Legislative Versioning

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The House Rules Committee is looking into how to provide better context for legislation, by showing the difference between different versions of bills.

The committee’s oversight plan, posted on its website, (as all House committees are newly required to do), lays out the committee’s priorities for the coming Congress. One of the major headings is “Impact of new Information Technology on the House,” in which recent reforms are outlined, along with a discussion of “comparative prints”:

Some of the issues raised during the transition from the 111th to 112th Congress were not yet mature enough to be addressed in this Congress’ rules package. One such issue is the availability of “comparative prints” showing both changes to bills at various stages of the legislative process as well as showing changes to current law proposed by legislation before the House. A number of current Members of the House were previously State legislators where the practice of showing proposed changes as part of the text of bills was commonplace.

While clause 3(e) of rule XIII (commonly referred to as the “Ramsayer” rule) requires a comparative print in committee reports, there is wide acknowledgement that this is insufficient to meet the current needs of Members and the public. The Committee will examine the need for changes in rules and procedures to make comparative prints more widely available at various stages of the legislative process.

It’s fantastic that the Rules Committee will be examining this issue further; Sunlight also gets this feature request rather often. It’s to this end that both OpenCongress.org and GovTrack.us both feature versioning tools, to let users see how bills have changed over time.

Here’s a good example of this feature in action. You can easily compare the version of last Congress’s DISCLOSE Act as it was introduced in the House, to how it looked when it got to the Senate, using the boxes along the left-hand side.

This isn’t a trivial capability; we have often tried to do this for bills as they move through the process. Daniel used Microsoft Word as a workaround to compare versions of the DISCLOSE Act last year, since the bills had a long lag time before they appeared on THOMAS. We even once made a video about how difficult this sort of process would be if it were entirely paper-based.

If the Rules Committee makes any headway on attacking this problem, we’ll be glad for it; tracking legislation is empowering, and understanding changes as they are made makes the process much easier. They’ve already helped, in fact, by starting to publish bills in XML on the Rules Committee site, which they deserve enormous credit for doing.

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