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GPO is Closing Gap on Public Access to Law at JCP’s Direction, But Much Work Remains

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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.

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House Convenes Second Public Meeting on Legislative Bulk Data

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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.

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Access to Legislation Gets Better, Promise of More to Come

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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.

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Keeping Authentication Simple

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The point of publishing bulk data is so it can be reused as widely as possible. This is particularly true for government data, which belongs to the public.

Government agencies can sometimes also be concerned with ensuring the authenticity of their legal information - especially when the data might be seen as an official source. It breaks down into two major concerns: integrity (ensuring the text is accurate), and origin (proving it's official). A lot of people are used to the "wax seal" model of authenticity - the experience of opening a PDF and seeing that the document is signed and official. This model quickly breaks down for distributing bulk data.

The goals of ease of reuse and authentication are frequently presented as being in tension, but that tension is just as frequently overstated. There are straightforward approaches to guaranteeing authenticity of bulk data that do not encumber reuse.

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