After 578 Days, Where’s the Constitution Annotated?


578 days ago, Congress directed that the legal treatise Constitution Annotated be published online, but it’s still not available. The Constitution Annotated, aka CONAN, is a 100-year-old continuously updated congressional report that explains the US Constitution as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. With so many important rulings coming out of the High Court, it’s important to understand the effect of its decisions on the Constitution.

Here’s what Congress, via the Joint Committee on Printing, required in a November 17, 2010 letter:

Update the online edition [of the Constitution Annotated] as frequently as possible, and to create new and improved functions on the CONAN site. The Congress and the public should find this site accessible and user-friendly.

The master file for CONAN is updated frequently and is available as a website accessible only to Congress. (The public version is updated only once a decade and is released in a barely usable format, which is why JCP sent the letter in the first place.) Many organizations have asked that CONAN be published online in its original (XML) format. JCP has directed that it be published online in a timely fashion, but in the less-useful PDF format. (It would be fine to publish it in both.)

This shouldn’t be a particularly hard project, so we can only help but wonder why there’s been such a long delay, and how much longer we’ll have to wait? As an interim measure, it may be simplest for Congress simply to release to the public what it already publishes on the Congress’ internal website. That should require the technological equivalent of flipping a switch.

This upcoming year, CONAN will be up for its once-a-decade print edition. With at least 4,870 statutorily mandated copies, at an guesstimated cost of $226 per copy, the House and Senate will pay over $1.1 million to prepare a document that will go out of date almost immediately. (Even assuming that 60% of the costs are for layout, which is necessary for an online edition as well, that’s still $440,000 to print a very heavy doorstop.)

Some of these costs may be avoided by asking Congressional offices whether they prefer a paper version or electronic access, as is the practice with other legislative documents. But the bigger question is: what’s taking so long? Is this a sign of bigger problems inside the Library of Congress and GPO? When will this finally be finished?

It looks like we’ll have to continue to wait and see.