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Sunlight Testimony: Bulk Access to THOMAS and Access to CRS Products

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Earlier today I testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch on lifting a publishing restriction on CRS general distribution products and granting the public bulk access to THOMAS data. What follows is my oral testimony, and I've embedded the written testimony at the end of the blogpost.

Comments of the Sunlight Foundation before the Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch May 11, 2011

Chairman Crenshaw, Ranking Member Honda, and members of the Committee, thank you for allowing me to to appear before you today.

My name is Daniel Schuman, and I am the Policy Counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan non-profit dedicated to using the power of the Internet to increase government openness and transparency. I am here to speak with you today about empowering the Congressional Research Service to better serve Congress and the American people, and to encourage this committee to follow-up on its languishing request regarding public access to the raw legislative information that powers THOMAS.

Taxpayers spend around $100 million a year to fund CRS and its nearly 700 staff members. As an administrative unit of the Library of Congress, CRS often furthers the Library's public mission, and its products help frame public debate on important issues. As an example, in the last two years, major newspapers cited CRS reports 779 times; over the last decade, federal courts have cited CRS Reports 130 times.

All the while, the Library of Congress's ability to pay for publishing costs has been restricted, by legislative branch appropriations language, for every year since 1952.

This 59-year-old publishing rule was likely intended as a cost-savings measure, a leftover from a bygone era of expensive layout, printing, and distribution costs. It also precedes CRS's creation by nearly two decades. Times have changed, and these print limitations are a counterproductive anachronism in the Internet age. A coalition of 38 organizations recently wrote to you to urge an end to the restriction, and I am here to do so in person today.

Congressional staff already google for CRS reports, review Cornell's Constitution Annotated website to learn about Supreme Court decisions, search YouTube for briefings on Federal Law, and look to OpenCongress.org for legislative summaries. Unfortunately, CRS has not kept up with the times, and embraces an overbroad interpretation of the publishing restriction – transforming a speed bump into a road block – thereby stifling its ability to innovate, meet the needs of its clients, and fulfill its public responsibilities. In short, you should lift the publishing restriction and send CRS an unmistakable signal to modernize.

Let me be clear: I am not requesting that all CRS reports be made publicly available. One-on-one communications between CRS and individual Members of Congress or their staff are and ought to be confidential.

Instead, I ask that the Committee grant CRS the flexibility to release general distribution products online without excuse or fear of violating an antiquated publishing restriction. Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor recently encouraged the Clerk of the House to develop better online tools to make legislative information more open, and Congress more accountable, to the American people. CRS, the source of much legislative information, should be similarly open.

With respect to THOMAS, in 2009, this committee adopted a forward-thinking approach that required a report on the issues around granting the American people access to all electronic legislative information at once – through a method known as “bulk” access.

Nearly three years later, as far as we know, no such report has been generated. A reason why is that the trigger for the release of the report was the launch of Legislative Information System 2.0, which has not happened and likely will never happen as envisioned.

The world has not waited. In the interim, GPO has published five datasets online in bulk, including the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Register. Data.gov was launched in May 2009 and now has hundreds of thousands of datasets. Technologists are already using this information, in new and exciting ways, that enhance the public's access to government information.

In the same way, providing bulk access to THOMAS data would give technology innovators an opportunity to creatively use data to solve new problems and address unmet needs. It would put all of this important legislative information into the American people's hands.

We ask for your renewed attention to this unheeded directive and urge you to make up for lost time. The committee should grant the public bulk access to legislative documents, bill status and summary information, and other legislative data no later than 120 days after the start of FY 2012. We also ask for the immediate creation of an advisory committee, composed of relevant legislative agency employees and members of the public, that will meet regularly to address the public's need for access to this information, and the means by which it is provided. Finally, as mentioned before, we ask that you end the publishing restriction.

This committee has the unparalleled opportunity to make government more open and accountable. We hope that you seize the moment. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I look forward to your questions.

Daniel Schuman Testimony Appropriations Subcommittee 2011-05-11