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Where's CONAN? 6 months later, still no sign of legal treatise

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On the 220th birthday of the Constitution, Sunlight made a simple request: the fantastic legal treatise known as the Constitution Annotated should be published online in XML. The Constitution Annotated -- CONAN, to those who know it well -- explains the U.S. Constitution section-by-section in light of Supreme Court decisions. Federal law requires that the Library of Congress write this document, a task that has fallen on the Congressional Research Service; the Government Printing Office is required by law to publish it.

[caption id="attachment_13454" align="alignright" width="210" caption="The other Conan."][/caption]

Today, 6 months after our letter to CRS and GPO, which asks them to publish the XML file online, and regularly update it online (just like on Congress' internal website, which is up-to-date), the public still does not have access to CONAN in XML. The American people deserve access to an authoritative explanation of the Constitution, especially when it is prepared by public servants and is required by law to be publicly available.

Senator Feingold, the Chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agrees with us. He wrote a letter to GPO and CRS in November asking for "the Constitution Annotated to the published online in XML format ... with updates be made available to the general public at the same time they are made available to Congress."

And yet here we are, six months later, on the Constitution's half birthday. Has anything changed? As always, GPO continues to publish limited updates to CONAN every other year, in plain text file and PDF formats, and updates the full treatise once a decade. That's not enough.

CONAN is updated as the Supreme Court issues decisions -- and yet, we're still stuck in 2008. A lot has changed since then, including a new Supreme Court justice and several landmark decisions. CRS generates the file in XML, but that detailed meta-data is stripped out. GPO recently (and admirably) started publishing the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations in XML. (This video explains why XML is useful.) So why not this?

In July 2009, the Public Printer, the head of GPO, gave a speech recognizing the importance of the federal government "provid[ing] complete legal and regulatory information online in an electronic format that is fully visible by the American people free of charge. We should start with the Constitution Annotated." So how do things stand now?

When we asked CRS for a comment on the status of CONAN last week, their spokesperson, Janine D'Addario, had a three-word comment: "discussions are continuing." This adds to their comment from last September: "The Congressional Research Service and the Government Printing Office plan to discuss publication of the Constitution Annotated and possible future enhancements."

GPO was more forthcoming. Their spokesperson, Gary Somerset, said, "GPO serves the needs of our customers and is committed to providing the American public access to federal government information in an electronic format this is usable and free of charge. In all facets of GPO’s information dissemination, the agency acts as the ‘printer’ under the direction of the publishing agency. In the case of CONAN, that is the U.S. Senate. GPO is currently awaiting direction from the Senate on this issue."

Over the last several years, Congress and the President have made government transparency a priority. They have urged agencies to conceive of their missions in ways that maximize transparency. Allowing for the re-use of government-held information -- which is owned by the public -- is fundamental to transparency. It should not take an Act of Congress (specifically, of the Senate) demanding that CRS and GPO fully open CONAN to the American people to get these agencies to do what is already within their power.

We have heard some rumblings of progress, like thunder in the distance. We hope this rumbling will grow into a roar. Publishing CONAN online, in XML, as it is updated, would be an easy win for CRS, GPO, and the American people.

  • As usual, I have to disclose that I served as a legislative attorney with CRS. More information about the Constitution Annotated is available here.