The GPO's recent electronic publication of all legislation enacted by Congress from 1951-2009 is noteworthy for several reasons. It makes available nearly 40 years of lawmaking that wasn't previously available online from any official source, narrowing part of a much larger information gap. It meets one of three long-standing directives from Congress's Joint Committee on Printing regarding public access to important legislative information. And it has published the information in a way that provides a platform for third-party providers to cleverly make use of the information. While more work is still needed to make important legislative information available to the public, this online release is a useful step in the right direction.
Narrowing the Gap
In mid-January 2013, GPO published approximately 32,000 individual documents, along with descriptive metadata, including all bills enacted into law, joint concurrent resolutions that passed both chambers of Congress, and presidential proclamations from 1951-2009. The documents have traditionally been published in print in volumes known as the "Statutes at Large," which commonly contain all the materials issued during a calendar year.
The Statutes at Large are literally an official source for federal laws and concurrent resolutions passed by Congress. The Statutes at Large are compilations of "slip laws," bills enacted by both chambers of Congress and signed by the President. By contrast, while many people look to the US Code to find the law, many sections of the Code in actuality are not the "official" law. A special office within the House of Representatives reorganizes the contents of the slip laws thematically into the 50 titles that make up the US Code, but unless that reorganized document (the US Code) is itself passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, it remains an incredibly helpful but ultimately unofficial source for US law. (Only half of the titles of the US Code have been enacted by Congress, and thus have become law themselves.) Moreover, if you want to see the intact text of the legislation as originally passed by Congress -- before it's broken up and scattered throughout the US Code -- the place to look is the Statutes at Large.
In 2011, GPO published 58 volumes of the Statutes at Large, covering 1951-2009, but did not break the volumes down into their constituent documents. Up until that point, the public laws were available as individual documents on THOMAS from 1989 to present as HTML (and PDF in some instances), and from 1789 to 1875 as TIFF (unwieldy image) files from the Library of Congress. Even with this recent release, 76 years of federal law are still unavailable online in any format from any official source; and the files released for the years 1789 to 1875 by the Library of Congress are difficult to use.
The only apparently complete free online private source for the Statutes at Large is available at the Constitution Society website, (which we've mirrored here.) So why are laws from 1875 to 1951 unavailable? I don't know. My best guess is that it is in some way connected with who was responsible for publishing the documents at different times. Around 1874, responsibility for publishing the Statutes at Large shifted from private publishers to the GPO under the direction of the Secretary of State. In 1950, publication responsibility shifted to the Office of the Federal Register under the direction of the General Services Administrator.
The Joint Committee on Printing issues Digitization Instructions
Three years ago, in November 2010, GPO's oversight committee, the Joint Committee on Printing, directed the completion "as quickly as possible" of "enhanced access" [i.e. online access to electronic formats] to three sets of documents that "are key primary research sources ... essential to understanding our laws and legislative history." With respect to the Statutes at Large, the JCP wrote to GPO that it:
[A]pproves your request to collaborate with the Law Library of Congress to create digitized volumes of the Statutes at Large and to develop robust searching and content management tools. Archival and access copies with digitally signed pages to ensure authenticity will be incorporated into the project. Once the content has been prepared, the Statutes at Large will be published online by GPO, and the Library of Congress will use this GPO content in its public database of legislative information known as 'THOMAS.'
As far as I can tell, the Statutes at Large have not yet been incorporated into THOMAS or its successor Congress.gov. Also, it appears that the project did not encompass the time period prior to 1951 for reasons not clear on the face of JCP's directive. Be that as it may, GPO has done a good job of publishing the documents with appropriate metadata. It would have been additional useful if they were published in formats in beyond PDFs, such as plain text or HTML, but that might have been a much larger (and more unwieldy) project.
It's worth noting that the other two projects called for by JCP to be completed as quickly as possible -- the online public release of updated versions of the legal treatise known as the Constitution Annotated and digitization of volumes of the Congressional Record from 1873 to 1998 -- apparently have not been completed, or at have yet to be publicly announced in the way that the Statutes were announced. The absence of an announcement would not be surprising, as the digitization order itself wasn't publicly known until Sunlight wrote about it three months after JCP's directive. Regardless, by now there should be real progress to report.
Making use of the Statutes at Large
The online release of the Statutes at Large from 1951 forward, accompanied by good quality metadata, has made it possible for the public to see important (and not so important) legislation. It's now possible to look up the Federal Election Campaign Act (1972), which was responsible for our current campaign finance system, or the Voting Rights Act (1964), which outlawed discriminatory voting practices, and so on. People can now see exactly what Congress did. Of course, the major New Deal legislation, such as the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, and anything from the last quarter of the 19th century, is still unavailable from GPO. And GPO/LOC still hasn't incorporated the information it has released onto THOMAS. However, the free legislative information portal GovTrack already jumped in with both feet, incorporating this information on its website where users can easily search and find historical bills going back to 1951.
Depending on the quality of the searchable PDFs GPO has posted, it may also be just a matter of time before someone pull out the text from the PDFs and puts it into a database, too. That would improve the ability to search for bills and facilitate analysis of congressional activities. It also moves us one step closer to a very difficult but important goal: allowing people to see in real time how draft legislation would amend the law. For that to be possible, GPO would need to publish the Statutes at Large from prior to 1951 online in electronic form, including making clear the underlying structure of the statutes, plus there'd have to be some pretty significant advances in the tools available to parse legislative language.
We hope to see progress with the Constitution Annotated and Congressional Record in the near future, and hope that more of the Statutes at Large will become available online. While the effort to digitize the Statutes at Large from 1951-2009 took much longer than we expected, it's good to see that there has been some progress.