The House Appropriations committee passed up another chance to advance core transparency practices in Congress. In a draft report published this morning for FY2014 appropriations, the committee makes no mention of legislative data. And in the Bulk Data Task Force’s finally-released recommendations, the Library of Congress gets all worked up over something no one has been asking for.
Here’s the short of it. Can we get a spreadsheet simply listing all bills in Congress? Is that so hard? I guess so.
After last year’s legislative branch appropriations bill report said the committee was “concerned” that the public would misuse any bulk data downloads, The Washington Post covered how the public uses this sort of data for good, and House leadership formed a Bulk Data Task Force to consider if and how to make bulk legislative data available. That task force submitted recommendations to the House Appropriations committee last December, but it was only made available to the public last week (see this, page 679).
In the recommendations, the task force noted that it had begun several new transparency projects. One is the Bill Summaries project, in which the Library of Congress will begin to publish the summaries of House bills written by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in some structured way. The Library of Congress’s report to the task force has some choice quotes:
“some groups may try to leverage this action to drive demand for public dissemination of CRS reports” (Note that “CRS reports” are different from “CRS summaries.” That’s a whole other can of worms.)
“CRS could find itself . . . needing to clarify misrepresentations made by non-congressional actors”
“if there is an obligation to inform the general public to the risks of non-authoritative versions of the information, it has not been included in the estimates”
These CRS summaries have already been widely distributed… on GovTrack… for nearly a decade. (And, I’m sorry, but what risks am I causing?) And while I wouldn’t mind having the summaries easier to get from the Library, I certainly am not gunning for them. I want data like the list of cosponsors, what activities bills have gone through, or just a simple list of bills. If the Library thought this wasn’t a great place to start with bulk data, well, I couldn’t agree more!
Some of the other projects mentioned in the recommendations are indeed very useful (some of which I wrote about here). Others, however, touted bulk data success without making any new data available. In the recommendations’s meeting minutes in the appendix, the task force wrote that it discussed “what data is available on GovTrack compared to what would be available through the proposed GPO project.” Quite a bit! That proposed GPO project turned into the one that made no new data available. In their next meeting they met with me and folks from other groups (Sunlight, Cornell LII, and so on), but I don’t recall them asking me the question they posed the week before, oddly.
The other projects mentioned in the bulk data task force recommendations are:
- Congress.gov, THOMAS’s upgrade, which is explicitly not providing any bulk data (except perhaps through the new Bill Summaries Project)
- Member Data Update: The Clerk’s list of Members of the House now includes Bioguide IDs, which is fantastic and very helpful.
- A new House History website launched or will launched. See, I don’t even know. Again, not bulk data.
- Docs.House.Gov: Committee schedules and documents have been added. (Great! I’m using that data on GovTrack already.)
- New XML data for House floor activity. (This is pretty interesting but a little disorganized. I would rather scrape THOMAS than use this XML data.)
- The Clerk is launching a Twitter account. (No data here.)
- HouseLive speaker search. (Searching videos. Data? Who knows.)
- Stock Act public data disclosure.
- Legislative Data Dashboard (not quite sure what this is).
- Converting the United States Code to XML. (This is a big and commendable project.)
- A contest to get the public to convert bills to the Akoma Ntoso XML data format. (Does not count as open government data if the public has to do the work.)
- Replacing MicroComp (an old bill/report text drafting tool?).
- Positive Law Codification (when did that become in scope for this task force?).
- Editorial Updating System (no idea what this is).
So while the recommendations support the use of legislative data generally, it made no long term goals for broad access to the legislative data on THOMAS. And as for the only data in motion now, the Library of Congress appears not to be happy about making it widely available.
The committee report for the annual legislative branch appropriations bill, which kicked off the task force last year, has been an important document for legislative transparency in the past. Besides last year’s step backwards, in 2009 the report indicated the House supported “bulk data downloads” for the bill status information on THOMAS.gov. Though nothing came of it. This year the committee said nothing, so, well, I guess nothing will come of it too.