In a foot race, there is always a starting point and an end point. There is no confusion or ambiguity as to when or where the runners started. That is not so when measuring the public availability of legislation. In our Read the Bill campaign we are advocating that all bills be placed online for 72 hours prior to consideration. Specifically, the Read the Bill campaign asks that bills be accessible, in text format, online and posted to a commonly visited web site, GPO or THOMAS. So far, 3476 people have joined the #ReadtheBill campaign. You can sign up here.
While researching and measuring the length of time for our case studies and for the Open Congress Rushed Bills feed we discovered that pinpointing a time when bills become publicly available was not so easy.
Nancy Watzman pointed out last week that the OC Rushed Bills feed relies on the Government Printing Office (GPO) bill feed. The GPO feed of legislation is what feeds THOMAS, the commonly used Library of Congress legislative search engine, and so this marks a very good point to judge public availability. Looking backwards, at bills that will not, through the magic of the Internet, appear in the GPO feed, is much more difficult as there is no legal definition of public availability of legislation.
Bills can become available in many ways. Most commonly they are posted through the GPO and then to THOMAS, but committees sometimes preempt the printing body and post PDFs of legislation to their web site. When the stimulus bill and the bailout bill first became available, it was through committee web sites. Does this mark a publicly available moment? Or should we only call a bill publicly available, in text format as opposed to PDF, when it has been published to a commonly visited engine (GPO or THOMAS)? We believe the latter—and we urge Congress to clarify this crucial point.
Meanwhile, in some cases in our Read the Bill research, we have had to rely on information from the House Rules Committee. Most bills in the House require a rule to come to the floor and thus wind up getting posted to this committee. Many times, the PDFs of bills posted to the Rules Committee web site will have a time stamp on the lower left corner. That marks the moment that a bill has been filed and thus the first time it is available to lawmakers, but not necessarily to the general public.
Neither Congress nor the public will be able to form well informed decisions on legislation unless bills are posted online 72 hours before debate. While we at Sunlight—with the help of Open Congress—are happy to decide when the clock starts ticking, it really is up to Congress to make the decision to consistently post bills to a publicly available site in a searchable format. Join us in urging them to do that.