It's 2013, and the Library of Congress seems to think releasing public data about Congress is a risk to the public. The Library of Congress is in charge of [THOMAS.gov](http://thomas.loc.gov/), and its successor [Congress.gov](http://congress.gov). These sites publish some of the most fundamental information about Congress — the history and status of bills. Whether it's immigration law or SOPA, patent reform or Obamacare, the Library of Congress will tell you: *What is Congress working on? Who's working on it? When did that happen?* Except they won't let you download that information.Continue reading
Continued cuts to legislative branch budget hurt transparency, accountability, and capacity.
This morning, the House Appropriations Committee's Legislative Branch Subcommittee marked up its FY 2014 funding bill, agreeing to a plan that would cut funding for Congress and legislative support agencies well below FY 2013 levels, and even beneath sequestration levels for most offices. Committee leadership claimed that cuts were necessary to "lead by example" and help get the government's "fiscal house in order," but, in reality, the cuts will likely limit accountability, access to information, and the ability of Congress and the legislative support agencies to do their jobs efficiently and effectively. The shrinking budgets could also make it more difficult for Congress to implement a number of important transparency initiatives. Specifically, the plan would continue several years of cuts to House operations and the Government Accountability Office that have diminished the capacity of both bodies.Continue reading
Committee on House Administration Supports Public’s Right to Gov’t Docs
The influential Committee on House Administration released a letter yesterday that endorsed the principle that “the documents of our democracy... View ArticleContinue reading
Is the GPO a Digital Printer or a Digital Publisher?
The tension between the Government Printing Office's traditional role as a printing operation and its future as a publisher of digital government information was apparent at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee's Legislative Branch Subcommittee last week. In her testimony, acting Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks stressed the GPO's efforts to transition to the digital age and acknowledged that the agency's role has evolved to that of a publishing operation. Unfortunately, the GPO has often failed to take steps that would allow it to fully embrace that role and ensure its future as an essential source of information.Continue reading
Why Are House Appropriators Not Webcasting Their Meetings?
The House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee just scheduled four budget hearings for next week, none of which will be webcast... View ArticleContinue reading
GPO is Closing Gap on Public Access to Law at JCP’s Direction, But Much Work Remains
The GPO's recent electronic publication of all legislation enacted by Congress from 1951-2009 is noteworthy for several reasons. It makes available nearly 40 years of lawmaking that wasn't previously available online from any official source, narrowing part of a much larger information gap. It meets one of three long-standing directives from Congress's Joint Committee on Printing regarding public access to important legislative information. And it has published the information in a way that provides a platform for third-party providers to cleverly make use of the information. While more work is still needed to make important legislative information available to the public, this online release is a useful step in the right direction. Narrowing the Gap In mid-January 2013, GPO published approximately 32,000 individual documents, along with descriptive metadata, including all bills enacted into law, joint concurrent resolutions that passed both chambers of Congress, and presidential proclamations from 1951-2009. The documents have traditionally been published in print in volumes known as the "Statutes at Large," which commonly contain all the materials issued during a calendar year. The Statutes at Large are literally an official source for federal laws and concurrent resolutions passed by Congress. The Statutes at Large are compilations of "slip laws," bills enacted by both chambers of Congress and signed by the President. By contrast, while many people look to the US Code to find the law, many sections of the Code in actuality are not the "official" law. A special office within the House of Representatives reorganizes the contents of the slip laws thematically into the 50 titles that make up the US Code, but unless that reorganized document (the US Code) is itself passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, it remains an incredibly helpful but ultimately unofficial source for US law. (Only half of the titles of the US Code have been enacted by Congress, and thus have become law themselves.) Moreover, if you want to see the intact text of the legislation as originally passed by Congress -- before it's broken up and scattered throughout the US Code -- the place to look is the Statutes at Large. In 2011, GPO published 58 volumes of the Statutes at Large, covering 1951-2009, but did not break the volumes down into their constituent documents. Up until that point, the public laws were available as individual documents on THOMAS from 1989 to present as HTML (and PDF in some instances), and from 1789 to 1875 as TIFF (unwieldy image) files from the Library of Congress. Even with this recent release, 76 years of federal law are still unavailable online in any format from any official source; and the files released for the years 1789 to 1875 by the Library of Congress are difficult to use.Continue reading
House Convenes Second Public Meeting on Legislative Bulk Data
On January 30th, the House of Representatives held a public meeting on its efforts to release more legislative information to the public in ways that facilitate its reuse. This was the second meeting hosted by the Bulk Data Task Force where members of the public were included; it began privately meeting in September 2012. (Sunlight and others made a presentation at a meeting, in October, on providing bulk access to legislative data.) This public meeting, organized by the Clerk's office, is a welcome manifestation of the consensus of political leaders of both parties in the House that now is the time to push Congress' legislative information sharing technology into the 21st century. In other words, it's time to open up Congress. The meeting featured three presentations on ongoing initiatives, allowed for robust Q&A, and highlighted improvements expected to be rolled out of the next few months. In addition, the House recorded the presentations and has made the video available to the public. The ongoing initiatives are the release of bill text bulk data by GPO, the addition of committee information for docs.house.gov, and the release on floor summary bulk data. It's expected that these public meetings will continue at least as frequently as once per quarter, or more often when prompted by new releases of information. As part of the introductory remarks, the House's Deputy Clerk explained that a report had been generated by the Task Force at the end of the 112th Congress on bulk access to legislative data and was submitted to the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. It's likely that the report's recommendations will become public as part of the committee's hearings on the FY 2014 Appropriations Bill, at which time the public should have an opportunity to comment.Continue reading
Keeping GPO’s Data Free
The Government Printing Office’s data portal, FDSys, is a major pillar of US government transparency and access to information. Information... View ArticleContinue reading
Access to Legislation Gets Better, Promise of More to Come
Earlier today, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor and the Government Printing Office announced an improvement in how legislation is made publicly available. Starting in the 113th Congress, GPO will make all bills available for bulk download in XML format. While this doesn't change much from a technological perspective, it does mark a significant change from a policy perspective.Continue reading
The Missing Data Behind The Plum Book
The latest compilation of more than 8,000 federal jobs known as the Plum Book is out, and for the first time it is available in print, digital, and mobile format. There's still something missing, though, with this list that holds interest for the public and Washington, DC, power brokers: the data behind it. Every four years, the Government Printing Office (GPO) compiles this publication of positions that "may be subject to noncompetitive appointment," as GPO puts it. The book is important because of the information it provides about who is chosen to fill presidential-appointed and other positions. In short, it is the best, most authoritative list of senior positions throughout the executive branch. It originated in the 1950's during the Eisenhower administration, when the Republican Party requested a list of positions the president could fill, according to GPO. The Plum Book has come out every four years just after the presidential election since 1960. Anyone viewing the book (whatever the format) can look up positions by agency, position title, appointment type, pay, term expiration, and more. It is an incredibly rich source of information that has many possible uses. There are still barriers to accessing that information, however. The book is available on the GPO website in text and as a PDF, neither of which is an open format that would make sorting or reusing the underlying data a simple task.Continue reading