Birds of a Feather: What’s In The “DISCLOSE” Bills


Last week, legislation responding to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was introduced in Congress. The Senate and House versions of the legislation, introduced by lead authors Senator Schumer and Representative Van Hollen, respectively, reportedly differ, although it’s difficult to gauge the extent at this time. On its face, the Senate version is 10 pages longer than its House counterpart. The reason for the delay in public access has to do with how Congress makes its legislative information available online. (As a side note, Sunlight’s response to the introduction of the DISCLOSE Act, a.k.a. “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections,” is here.)

The House version (HR 5175) was available on Friday from THOMAS, the online repository of Congressional legislative information, one day after it was introduced. The Senate version (S. 3295) is still unavailable from THOMAS, as of 10:50am on Monday, 4 days after introduction. When you click on the link for the legislation, you get the following note:

Bills are generally sent to the Library of Congress from the Government Printing Office a day or two after they are introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. Delays can occur when there are a large number of bills to prepare or when a very large bill has to be printed.

PDF versions of the House and Senate bills became available elsewhere on the web within 24 hours (see, e.g., ElectionLawBlog). The legislation is prepared in XML, so it’s unclear what has caused the delay of the official release on THOMAS of the Senate version. (These kinds of delays are, alas, common on THOMAS.)

When the Library of Congress finally publishes the Senate version online, both documents will be available in XML format (in addition to other formats). What that means is that some clever person can run a comparison of the two documents that will identify how the versions differ. It would be nice if THOMAS would have this comparative feature as well. At some point, for the legislation to become law, the House and Senate will have to reconcile their differences.

When the Senate version joins the House version online, it will illustrate the point that my colleague Clay Johnson often articulates: government documents should be made available online in real time and in a machine readable formats; he would add that publication in PDF format alone is usually insufficient. Publishing the DISCLOSE Act on THOMAS in a machine-readable format will help disclose what’s in the DISCLOSE bills.