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A Year Later, Little Progress on Digitizing Legislative Documents

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A year ago today, Congress' Joint Committee on Printing directed that three sets of vital legislative and legal documents be published online "as quickly as possible." We've reviewed how well that order was implemented, and the results are not encouraging. Of the three documents, there's only apparent progress on one.

The vital documents are the Constitution Annotated, the Congressional Record, and the Statutes at Large. The Government Printing Office is responsible for publishing them, and shares that responsibility to a certain extent with the Library of Congress and its subsidiary agencies, the Congressional Research Service and the Law Library of Congress. These agencies are custodians of America's heritage, and have an important obligation to make it available to every citizen. Here's how they've performed.

The Constitution Annotated

The Constitution Annotated (or CONAN) is a constantly-updated legal treatise that explains how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution. It's available to the public online from GPO, but in a cramped, out-of-date, technologically unsophisticated format. Members of the public have been asking for access to a better version for years.

JCP's instructions to GPO are simple and straightforward:

To make the online version of CONAN as useful as possible to Congress and the public, it is time to put the updates online as soon as they are prepared, rather than waiting to coincide with the two-year print cycle. The Joint Committee on Printing is authorizing you to work with the Library of Congress to update the online edition as frequently as possible, and to create new and improved functions on the CONAN site. The Congress and the public should find this site accessible and user-friendly.

What's happened since then? As far as is visible to the public, nothing. The most recent GPO-published  publicly-available complete version of CONAN dates back to 2002, and no updates have been published online since 2010. The webpage is hard to find, and only Congress has access to the latest version on its internal network, as provided by the document's author, the Congressional Research Service. GPO should save itself the trouble and share with the public what's already available on Congress' intranet.

The Congressional Record

The Congressional Record is the official record of congressional proceedings and debates. GPO has published an online version of the Record dating back to 1994, and the document was first published in its current format in 1873. The Library of Congress has published online earlier recordings of congressional proceedings and debates dating back from the founding of the country until 1873.

The Joint Committee on Printing authorized a collaboration between the GPO and the Library of Congress to digitize volumes of the Congressional Record from 1873 to 1998, which would fill in the missing gaps and provide a complete record of Congressional activity on the internet. JCP directed the online publication of "digital files with search functions, content management capabilities, and digital authentication."

Looking at GPO's website, the collection only dates back to 1994. THOMAS, however, appears to contain records going back to 1989.

There's more than a 100 year gap in the online records of congressional proceedings and debates, a majority of which is within living memory and has repercussions to this day. There's no evidence that any substantive work has been done on this in the last year.

Statutes at Large

The Statutes at Large is the official source for the laws and resolutions passed by Congress. It was first published by a private company in 1845, but responsibility for publication was transferred to GPO in 1874, with administrative responsibility shifting in 1950 and again in 1985. Like the Congressional Record, the Library of Congress has published online historic statutes at large covering the years 1789 to 1873. THOMAS also has long made it possible to browse (but not search) copies of the Statutes at Large from 1973 to present.

The JCP instructed GPO to work with the Law Library of Congress "to create digitized volumes of the Statutes at Large and to develop robust searching and content management tools." In essence, their role is to fill in the gaps. JCP further instructed that "once the content has been prepared, the Statutes at Large will be published online by GPO, and the Library of Congress will use their GPO content in its public database of legislative information known as 'THOMAS.'"

Unlike with the other two publications, there is tangible evidence of progress. GPO has now publishing a digitized version that covers from 1951-2002, which is a significant undertaking. However, the documents have not been integrated into THOMAS, and are still somewhat difficult to use because of their large size. Moreover, GPO published another set of digitized documents, from 2003 to 2007, that are kept in a separate location on GPO's website and stored at a much greater level of granularity.

This project is only partially complete, with a sizable gap in the public record from 1874 to 1951. Moreover, the documents haven't been integrated into THOMAS.

GPO Statement

I asked GPO to comment on their ongoing efforts to comply with the Joint Committee on Printing's letter. Here is their response:

GPO and the Library of Congress have worked together to digitize the U.S. Statutes at Large (content covers volumes 65-116, 1951-2002) and make them available through GPO’s Federal Digital System (www.fdsys.gov).

GPO and the Library of Congress are collaborating on a project to digitize the print bound Congressional Record dating back to 1873. GPO first put the daily Congressional Record online in 1994, and digital versions of the bound Congressional Record from 1998-2002 are currently available on FDsys. GPO is working with CRS on the dynamic version of CONAN.

Conclusion

I would like to call this a work in progress, but there doesn't appear to have been much progress. GPO hasn't provided an explanation for the delay, a timeline for completion, or a plan to get things on track. I know that GPO and its legislative branch colleagues can act with greater speed than we've seen thus far.

I am concerned by the apparent failure to think of how the public will find and use this information. Why aren't all the existing data sets integrated into THOMAS, where people will look for them? Why isn't the data available in bulk, so that developers can build tools to share the information more widely? Why aren't members of the public involved in the design and specifications of these sites, to make sure their needs are addressed?

The JCP described these documents are "essential to understanding our laws and legislative history" and proclaimed that "they should all be readily available online in electronic format." It is long past time to make this happen. The public deserves an explanation of what's gone wrong and when to expect results.

Update: I want to add that none of this should be construed as a commentary on what GPO, LOC, or other agency funding levels should be. Generally speaking, funding cuts would make it less likely that these important initiatives will come to fruition. Instead, I would urge Congress to more closely scrutinize compliance with its directives, and encourage agencies to be more open about their progress and the challenges they face. With respect to funding, it may be that digitization and online publication will lead to significant savings -- especially in terms of the current need to print many copies of these documents as well as the cost to government of paying private vendors to access ostensibly public documents -- but my main point is that the public has a right to this information.

(One more thing -- you may find that some of the links to documents stored on GPO's website, FDsys, don't always work. I don't know why that is, but they often time out for me, too.)