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JCP directs enhanced access to 3 of "our nation's vital legislative and legal documents"

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I’m rather late in sharing the news, but “enhanced access” to three of “our nation’s vital legislative and legal documents” will soon be possible thanks to a letter from the Joint Committee on Printing to the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress. Specifically, it authorizes the two legislative agencies to work together to provide “enhanced access” to the Constitution Annotated, the Congressional Record, and the Statutes at Large.

The Constitution Annotated

We’ve been banging on the drum for improved access to the Constitution Annotated for a year-and-a-half, and I’m pleased to announce a partial victory. To recap, the Constitution Annotated is a government publication that explains the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Although updated on a frequent basis and readily available to congressional staff, the complete Constitution Annotated is released to the public only once a decade -- scrubbed of helpful metadata. Updates reflecting recent Court decisions are released separately every two years, far short of what’s available to Congress.

The Joint Committee on Printing has directed that updates to CONAN (as it’s affectionately know) be put online as soon as they are prepared. But, instead of publishing it in XML, the structured data format in which it is prepared, CONAN will be published as a PDF. My former colleague Clay Johnson explained two years ago why publishing files only as PDFs is bad for open government. We appreciate that the document will be searachable and have a hyperlinked table of contents, but we’d like the underlying data, too. More than 20 organizations last year asked for CONAN to be made publicly available online in structured data format as it is updated in real time, as did then-Senator Feingold, and we hope that we’ll ultimately get there.

Congressional Record

It is a surprising fact that the official record of the proceedings and debate of the U.S. Congress are only available online (for free) from 1999 forward and prior to 1873. The JCP has now given GPO the go-ahead to digitize volumes of the Congressional Record during that 125 year gap. I fear that it will be made available only as a PDF, which will require a tremendous and expensive effort to transform those files into a structured data format that everyone can use. Still, making the documents available in some way is better than none. The American people have a right to see the crucial debates in Congress that continue to shape our world.

Statutes at Large

Believe it or not, it’s impossible to find all the laws enacted by congress online. Although the U.S. Code is available in its entirety, it is not always “positive law”; to find the original bills as they were enacted and are often still in effect, you have to look to the Statutes at Large. In essence, the Statutes at Large are a chronological compilation of bills enacted into law. (The process by which the bills are broken apart and transformed into the U.S. Code is discussed here.)

The JCP has now authorized GPO to work with the Law Library of Congress to digitize and publish online absent volumes of the Statutes at Large and “develop robust searching and content management tools.” Hopefully this means more than scanning them and putting them online as PDFs, but even that would be a great step forward. We’ve been interested in this for quite a while, and we’re glad to see that things are moving forward.

The Road Ahead

The JCP letter was sent nearly 3 months ago -- on November 17 -- and I am unable to find any evidence that the Constitution Annotated has been updated online or that progress has been made on the Congressional Record or the Statutes at Large. That is not to say that nothing has been done, but I was hoping to see, well, something. Although JCP has directed these agencies to complete these projects “as quickly as possible,” the absence of deadlines and historical reluctance on the part of some of the institutional players raises concerns about forward movement, particularly with respect to the Constitution Annotated.

We have other ideas about how Congress can improve public access to lawmaking information. Some of them are described in my “Read the Bill 2.0” post. The truth is that we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what should be available. I applaud the JCP’s efforts to move things forward, and I hope that the pace will only quicken.

Constitution Annotated, Congressional Record, and Statutes at Large