Apps for THOMAS: 3 wishes


Last year I asked the internet gods for a URL shortener that created permanent links to legislation on THOMAS. Lo and behold, several months later was revealed, and it is awesome. So once again I cast bread upon the water with three wishes for apps for THOMAS.

1. Compare bills

Bills often undergo a number of transformation before they become law. Understanding the legislative process requires seeing how bill language changes over time – that way you can see when legislators insert unobtrusive but important provisions. When the legislation is made available on THOMAS in XML, it is possible to download the two iterations, paste them into a word processor, and run a text comparison to see what has changed. That’s what I did here.

What I would like is an online tool that allows me to avoid all the hard work. It should let me select any two bills on THOMAS and generate a redline document viewable online and available for download. Because some bills are only available in PDF and not XML (or are made available in XML long after the PDF version is online), extra credit would be awarded for anyone who makes it possible to redline PDFs and export the redlined version.

2. Identify related legislation

Sibling bills: In any given congress, multiple versions of identical (or nearly identical) bills are introduced. CRS identifies some of them, but inconsistently, and there is no systematic way to see all bills that contain 97% or 98% + identical language. What would be wonderful is an app that either identifies all related bills in a particular congress, or allows you (when you’re looking at a particular bill) to press a button that then lists all other bills that have essentially the same text.

Generational bills: Bonus points would be awarded if you can identify similar bills (or amendments) introduced over multiple congresses.

Kissing Cousins: Mega bonus points would be awarded if you can identify when a section of a bill is identical to another bill (or section of a bill). The same holds true if you can identify when an amendment to a bill is really an existing bill in disguise.

3. Real time redline of U.S. code and legislation

More amendments are introduced for any particular bill than are adopted. What’s not always clear is how the amendment will change the text of the bill. This is probably very hard, but what would be great is if there were a way to parse the legislative language to show how a particular amendment would change the language of the bill.

If this isn’t hard enough, even more useful would be to see how a bill would modify the US code. (I think this may be impossible with the way bills currently are drafted, which is one reason why the Office of Law Revision Counsel exists, but I would enjoy being surprised.)