**Please see update added on June 7, 2012 below ** Washington, DC - Does information about legislation belong to Congress or to the American people? This basic question is at the heart of a debate happening right now about how Congress releases data about what it does.
This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the Legislative Branch Appropriations Act (H.R. 5882, available at http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h5882/show), a bill that places public access to open legislative data at a crossroads. Lawmakers are debating whether the public should have free access to download and use the data that powers the Library of Congress’ THOMAS website, which makes federal legislation available online.
Accompanying this federal funding bill is a report approved by the House Appropriations Committee last week that directs the bill’s implementation. That report instructs Congress to convene a secretive “task force” to study how to provide public access to the data behind the THOMAS website, with no deadline. Four years ago, Appropriators mandated another task force to study a similar matter; as far as we know, it never reached a conclusion. This raises questions about Congress’ commitment to government transparency; it’s doing nothing more than delaying the “public’s right to know,” despite pressure from Speaker Boehner and open government advocates.
The bill must be amended to require bulk access to THOMAS information no later than 120 days after its enactment. It should also create an advisory group of people inside and outside the government to discuss how to improve THOMAS.
THOMAS was created in the mid-1990s by Congress to make legislative information freely available to the public, but the Library of Congress has not kept up with best practices, such as providing “bulk access,” which would ease the development of new tools and technologies by publishing THOMAS data files online, promoting accurate and timely information dissemination.
Why is this so important? Numerous news organizations and government transparency websites can use this data to strengthen their ability to report on Congress and make it easy for anyone to read and track legislation in a much more user-friendly and engaging way than THOMAS does. The websites of Sunlight Coalition partners OpenCongress.org*, GovTrack.us and WashingtonWatch.com are prime examples, as is the information architecture work by the New York Times to make this data more freely available. Newsrooms can use this data to report accurately the introduction, status, co-sponsorship and votes on legislation, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
But because Congress has yet to grant public access to legislative data in bulk, software developers at newsrooms and non-profits must perform onerous database “scraping” tasks to access that data to use it in journalistic ways that extend beyond the mission and capacity of the Library of Congress.
The House is moving fast, and is likely to approve this obstruction to government transparency by end of this week. Then, the Senate will take up the Legislative Appropriations bill, so there is still time to put public pressure on Congress to provide public, open access to legislative data in bulk.
Ironically, Congress has previously expressed its support for bulk data as have many organizations, and the Library of Congress even described in a 2008 memo how easy it would be to implement. The current debate makes one wonder whether Congress understands how the Internet works.
Bulk access to legislative information is already common practice inside and outside the government. The White House and federal agencies already publish bulk data online at Data.gov, which allows citizens, journalists, and even the government itself, create clever new apps and websites using this information. Our nation’s legislature should do the same.
*Disclosure: the Sunlight Foundation has funded OpenCongress.org, Washington Watch and GovTrack.us.
UPDATE (June 7, 2012):
An amendment offered by Rep. Issa to the House Legislative Appropriations bill to require bulk access to legislative data was withdrawn by a procedural ‘point of order’ move in the House Rules Committee on June 6. The Issa amendment mandated quick action, and echoed Sunlight and other open government advocates’ advocacy:
As soon as practicable, and no later than 120 days after the enactment of this Act, the Librarian of Congress, in consultation with the Director of the Congressional Research Service, the Public Printer, the Clerk of the House of Representatives, and the Secretary of the Senate, shall make available to the public through the Internet the bulk legislative summary and status data used by the Librarian to provide the information the Librarian posts on the THOMAS Web site.
At the same time, House Leadership issued a statement that said bulk data is a priority for the 112th Congress, and a task force should start working on this issue immediately.
This is a significant success and sign of progress. House Leadership’s statement (available here) is a public sign of its commitment to congressional transparency. Unfortunately, there is still no precise deadline set for when this bulk data access will be implemented.
The legacy of transparency of the 112th Congress will be judged by how quickly and effectively the House follows through on this commitment. Sunlight and its coalition partners will continue to put the pressure on to hold them accountable.
The Sunlight Foundation is a non-partisan non-profit that uses cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable. Visit SunlightFoundation.com to learn more about Sunlight’s projects, including InfluenceExplorer.com and Party Time.