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Bulk Access Language Tweaked by Approps

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The House Appropriations Committee had apparently tweaked its report language regarding bulk access to legislative information. The  report approved by the Committee has been replaced on website, but I have a copy of the original. Here's how the final paragraph has changed:

 Accordingly, and before any bulk data downloads of legislative information are authorized, The Committee directs the establishment of a task force composed of staff representatives of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Clerk of the House, the Government Printing Office, and such other congressional offices as may be necessary, to examine these and any additional issues it considers relevant and to report back to the Committee on Appropriations of the House and Senate.

What does this mean? It's responsive to one of the concerns we raised about the language, that "the report language is terribly overbroad: it prohibits the establishment of bulk data downloads of legislative information prior to the reporting back of the task force."  At least, as a matter of law, efforts around bulk access will not be frozen. Given that this restrictive language was inserted in the first place, it remains to be seen whether efforts around bulk data will continue as a matter of practice. (We have some reassurance on this count from the Speaker's Office.)

All the other concerns we raised before remain:

  • Why doesn't the task force include non-governmental participants if its focus is releasing information to the public?

  • When must it report back? There's no deadline for action.

  • Will draft reports be made available to the public for comment? Will meetings be open?

  • Why will the final report only be given to appropriators? It should be available to all members of Congress and to the public as well.

  • How are the issues entrusted to this task force any different form the issues already addressed by the Library of Congress in this 2008 memo? Where are any follow-on reports, contemplated in that memo, that engaged in "an examination of permanence and authentication of legislative data, along with any attendant issues, risks and workload?"

While we'd prefer the task force be open and transparent, to a large extent it is a red herring. The issues that it has been tasked have either been addressed previously or are largely irrelevant. It's important that people continue to call and write their members of Congress.

 

Below the jump is the full text of the revised report language.

During the hearings this year, the Committee heard testimony on the dissemination of congressional information products in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. XML permits data to be reused and repurposed not only for print output but for conversion into ebooks, mobile web applications, and other forms of content delivery including data mashups and other analytical tools. The Committee has heard requests for the increased dissemination of congressional information via bulk data download from non-governmental groups supporting openness and transparency in the legislative process. While sharing these goals, the Committee is also concerned that Congress maintains the ability to ensure that its legislative data files remain intact and a trusted source once they are removed from the Government's domain to private sites.

The GPO currently ensures the authenticity of the congressional information it disseminates to the public through its Federal Digital System and the Library Congress's THOMAS system by the use of digital signature technology applied to the Portable Document Format (PDF) version of the document, which matches the printed document. The use of this technology attests that the digital version of the document has not been altered since it was authenticated and disseminated by GPO. At this time, only PDF files can be digitally signed in native format for authentication purposes. There currently is no comparable technology for the application and verification of digital signatures on XML documents. While the GPO currently provides bulk data access to information products of the Office of the Federal Register, the limitations on the authenticity and integrity of those data files are clearly spelled out in the user guide that accompanies those files on GPO's Federal Digital System.

The GPO and Congress are moving toward the use of XML as the data standard for legislative information. The House and Senate are creating bills in XML format and are moving toward creating other congressional documents in XML for input to the GPO. At this point, however, the challenge of authenticating downloads of bulk data legislative data files in XML remains unresolved, and there continues to be a range of associated questions and issues: Which Legislative Branch agency would be the provider of bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML, and how would this service be authorized. How would `House' information be differentiated from `Senate' information for the purposes of bulk data downloads in XML? What would be the impact of bulk downloads of legislative data in XML on the timeliness and authoritativeness of congressional information? What would be the estimated timeline for the development of a system of authentication for bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML? What are the projected budgetary impacts of system development and implementation, including potential costs for support that may be required by third party users of legislative bulk data sets in XML, as well as any indirect costs, such as potential requirements for Congress to confirm or invalidate third party analyses of legislative data based on bulk downloads in XML? Are there other data models or alternative that can enhance congressional openness and transparency without relying on bulk data downloads in XML?

The Committee directs the establishment of a task force composed of staff representatives of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Clerk of the House, the Government Printing Office, and such other congressional offices as may be necessary, to examine these and any additional issues it considers relevant and to report back to the Committee on Appropriations of the House and Senate.