Join/Watch the House of Representatives 2017 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference

On Tuesday, June 27, the House of Representatives will host the 2017 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference.

The all-day conference focuses on making Congress more efficient, transparent, and effective, and brings together people from inside the Legislative branch with member of the public to discuss how technology can help ensure Congress works for everyone.

The conference is held at the Capitol Visitor Center, and is free to attend. You can RSVP here or watch the webcast.

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Library of Congress, National Archives Host Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon

On Friday, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and Wikimedia D.C. hosted an Edit-a-Thon, focused on updating committee information on Wikipedia. This is the second such event, and the first to be hosted at the Library of Congress.Continue Reading

Whip Watch 2.0

On Thursday, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer launched Whip Watch 2.0, a free app that provides the public (and congressional staffers) a real-time mobile view into the Democrats’ whip operation. In addition to all the neat features we wrote about when Whip Watch first launched in June 2015, it allows users to see vote totals, including vote breakdowns by party, on floor votes as it happens, as well as show the time remaining on a vote and how long a vote stays open after it was supposed to close.Continue Reading

The House Rules Should be Publicly Available in Advance of Their Adoption

At the start of the 115th Congress, there was a fight over whether the Office of Congressional Ethics should continue its existence. I won’t get into the merits of the disagreement here (although I’ve written about it elsewhere), but how it occurred is interesting.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is one of the many offices and agencies created by the rules of the House of Representatives, which are adopted on the first day of the new Congress. The House Rules are contained in a simple resolution, and that resolution usually is released to the public at most 24 hours before the vote, and sometimes with even less notice. At the start of the 115th Congress, the Republican Conference did not finalize the proposed rules until the night before they were to be considered by the House, and the full text didn’t leak out in full until the day of the vote.

More or less, this is the general practice of both parties, which is neither transparent nor helpful to the deliberative process. And yet, bills and joint resolutions were publicly available online for 3 days in advance of when they were voted on, just as the House rules require. What was going on?Continue Reading

The House of Representatives Orders Seconds on Legislative Transparency

Once again, at the start of the 115th Congress, the House of Representatives included an order in its rules package in support of public access to legislative information.

(m) BROADENING AVAILABILITY OF LEGISLATIVE DOCUMENTS IN MACHINE-READABLE FORMATS.—The Committee on House Administration, the Clerk, and other officers and officials of the House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fifteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of improving public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.

What this means it the House of Representatives will continue–as a matter of policy–its work in making information about the legislative process available to the public.

As readers of this blog know, there has been a tremendous amount of progress in the last few years, including: publishing structured data about legislation, publication of bills and amendments to be considered by the Rules committee, the publication of the House’s rules as XML, publication of a House phone directory, publication of the U.S. code as structured data, publication of the committee hearing and markup schedule, online committee video, and more. And, even more remarkably, this is all being done on a bipartisan basis.

I’m looking forward to seeing what will be accomplished in the 115th Congress.

Why I Came To Believe CRS Reports Should be Publicly Available (and Built a Website to Make it Happen)

I first started working for Congress as a senate intern in September 2001. I was 23 years old and had no experience working on policy. I found myself responding to letters from constituents on issues that I’d never heard of previously. It was then that I first encountered the Congressional Research Service and its reports.

The Congressional Research Service, sometimes called Congress’ think-tank, provided introductory classes to orient interns on the service. It was fascinating to see all the different kinds of analysis performed by CRS — and there were rooms filled, just loaded with reports on every issue that you could imagine. CRS also provided classes on how Congress worked. It was a great way to learn.

I worked for Congress for the next year or so, eventually rising to become a (very) low-level staffer. Occasionally I spoke with analysts, but generally speaking the reports often were enough. CRS emphasized that its advice was non-partisan and even-handed. When I left, I did what many departing staff did, and took an armful of reports with me.

After I finished law school, a half-decade later, I came back to Congress. I joined CRS as a legislative attorney. It was my job provide legal advice to members of Congress on matters concerning telecommunications, terrorism, and the separation of church and state. As the person who was now writing the reports, I was aware in a way I never had been before about the gaps in my knowledge. I also became familiar with gaps in the way CRS reports were written, the idiosyncrasies of management, and the history and role of the agency.

What was surprising to me was the unrelenting insistence by CRS that CRS reports should never be available to the public. Of course, it was understood by everyone who wrote the reports that members of Congress would make them available to the public. But we were never to do so and even the thought of public access — that there were two sides to the issue — was heresy. I never really questioned the matter.

When I left CRS, I went to work in the nonprofit world. I had — and still have — a real interest in making government work better, and I ended up working on governance, transparency, and accountability issues. It was there that I really dug into the question of public access to CRS reports.

CRS used to be a very different agency. It used to provide unvarnished advice for members of Congress on the crucial issues of the day. But over time, and especially during the 1990s, the mode of analysis changed to a description of issues, moving away from an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of various courses of action. I don’t mean to overstate this, and there still are many examples of prescient analysis, but CRS changed the way it did its work, in large part because of existential concerns. CRS was concerned about irritating its congressional masters by finding fault in a pet project or cherished belief. The old-timers still had great latitude to share their advice on policy, informed by their expertise, but the agency became sclerotic.

Part of this calcification included a fear of public access to any aspect of CRS’s work. At one time, CRS published a newsletter about its latest research. Later, while its employees still testified before Congress, CRS management became nervous about that testimony and also began to discourage and then generally prohibit from sharing their work even with their academic peers. Agency staff grew more insulated and isolated, focused on managing management and staying out of trouble.

Over time, I came to realize that the policy concerning public access to CRS reports was counterproductive. Members of Congress could get the reports. Lobbyists and special interests could get the reports from Congress or from private vendors for a fee. Former congressional staff could ask their friends on the hill for a copy. But the general public, unless they knew a report existed, really did not have access.

And that’s too bad. CRS reports are written for intelligent people who are not necessarily policy experts. In a world that’s awash with 5 second YouTube ads, horse race political coverage, and the endless screaming and preening of political figures, these reports are a good way to start to understand an issue.

Assomeone who has developed expertise in several issue areas over the last decade-and-a-half, I can pick out problems with CRS reports on issues that I know about. Sometimes there are significant errors — and sometimes they go uncorrected. But overall, widespread access to CRS reports increases the reservoir of knowledge available to the American people. If the first result for any internet question is Wikipedia, shouldn’t it contain the knowledge that the American people spent $100 million annually to refine? Congressional staff often start their research with Google, for better or for worse. Shouldn’t we make the reports easy for them to find? In addition, public access to CRS reports can help make constituent communications to Congress better providing useful context for people who have questions about matters of policy.

Public access to CRS reports is also good for CRS. It builds a public base of support for a legislative branch agency that far too often has suffered from the budget axe over the last two decades. As it turns out, the second greatest threat to CRS doing its job is members of Congress. They’re the ones who have an axe to grind (or wield) when policy recommendations don’t come out the way that they want. The greatest threat, of course, can be CRS’s leadership, which can be so desperate to avoid the budget axe it will doanything to stay out of the public eye, including things that hurt the agency in the long run.

Opposition to public access to CRS report is rooted in fears of the unknown. Even though many reports are routinely released by members of Congress, published by committees, and available through third-party web sites, there still remains this unreasoning fear. It is time to conquer that fear.

Today my organization, in concert with others, is published 8,200 CRS reports on a new website, EveryCRSReport.com. We are not the first organization to publish CRS reports. Many others have done so. Nor are we the first to advocate for public access. We’re part of a huge coalition that includes many former CRS employees. But I think we are the first to publish just about all the (non-confidential) reports currently available to members of Congress, in concert with a bipartisan pair of members who are providing the reports to us, and with a method to keep on doing so.

We have tried to address CRS’s concerns. We redacted the contact information for the people who wrote the reports. We added information about why the reports are written and that they’re not subject to copyright. And we added a few bells and whistles to the website, such as letting you know how much a report has changed when it’s been revised.

We think Congress as an institution should publish the reports. We support bicameral, bipartisan legislation to do so. And we hope that our website will help show the way forward.

House launches a public-facing phone directory for all staff

As promised at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, the House of Representatives launched a public-facing phone directory for all its staff.

This is a tremendously useful tool. It provides authentic, up-to-date information on the people who work in the people’s house. While it (reasonably) does not contain email addresses, it has phone numbers, titles, and lots of other useful information about staff. It also will empower future analyses around employment in the House of Representatives, including discussions of legislative capacity and staff retention.

Until now, this information was only available through private vendors–for a fee–so the launch of the phone book amounts to a democratization of information about our elected representatives.

Using responsive design, so that it works on mobile devices, the phone directory allows anyone to obtain phone numbers and address information for any House staffer via a cleverly-designed interface. You can sort by member office, committee, or search for a particular staffer.

A screenshot of the new telephone directory website.

It’s also possible to download the underlying data set, whether as a CSV or PDF. This may save the House money on printing directories and provide more up-to-date information, particularly as staff move around all the time. The website was built by the Clerk and is extensible, so it may become possible to include the staff issue areas at a future date.

Kudos to House of Reps. for Releasing its Spending Info as Data

Today the House of Representatives published its spending information as structured data (a CSV) in addition to printing three volumes of tables. This is the second time it has done so. (I wrote about it the last time it happenedand why it is important for accountability.)

Okay, Senate, it’s your turn. Publish your semi-annual spending statement as data.

The Constitution (Annotated) In Your Pocket

After a powerful speech by Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention, sales of pocket U.S. Constitutions have skyrocketed, becoming the second best selling book on Amazon. This is great! But the words of the Constitution are unsufficient to provide an understanding into how it has been applied by the courts over the last two centuries. That’s where the Constitution Annotated comes it.

The Constitution Annotated (aka CONAN) is a plain language explanation of the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Published by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service at the direction of Congress, CONAN provides insight into the meaning of our founding document. It also is available online as of 2013 and can downloaded as an app for your phone (iPhone) (Android is under development).

Unfortunately, there are flaws with CONAN — not the content, but how it’s made available to you. First, CONAN is published as PDF files, which makes it all but unreadable on your phone. The app is virtually worthless. Blast. Second, while CONAN is continuously updated by the folks at CRS, what’s available on the website and the app is not. Information can be a year or more behind recent court opinions. This is a travesty, especially when the information is readily available on the congressional intranet and the document is prepared in a format that allows for immediate updates.

We’ve been trying to fix this problem. Believe me. I’ve written about this at least once a year for eight years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014), usually on my birthday, Constitution Day. And I’ve lobbied on it. We did finally get CONAN published online, after an enormous effort which resulted in this letter from the Senate Rules Committee to the Government Publishing Office. But CONAN still is not being published online as it is updated, and it’s still not published in a format that would support an app or sophisticated website.

As a result, people are reading highly-biased interpretations of the Constitution instead of the legal treatise that by law must be evenhanded and impartial, and is paid for by your tax dollars.

Maybe the Senate Rules Committee, the Government Publishing Office, and the Library of Congress will move to make the Constitution Annotated available online, in real time, and in a format that human and computers can use. At a moment with so many people are interested in the Constitution, Congress should make sure that everyone has access, electronically and otherwise.

Report from the 2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference

Today the House of Representatives’ Committee on House Administration hosted its fifth annual Legislative Data & Transparency Conference in the U.S. Capitol. The Conference brought together staff from House and Senate and legislative support offices, civil society advocates, technologists, overseas legislatures, and featured a speech by House Speaker Paul Ryan. More than 150 people attended, with more participating online.

There’s too much to recap from the conference — my notes, taken in real-time, are online, as is a video of the proceedings — but this blogpost will focus on the highlights. Once again, the most important aspect of the conference was that it brought together all the internal and external stakeholders to work together, announce progress, celebrate advances, and educate one another. It was a tremendous success.

Speaker Ryan: New Digitization Project

Speaker Ryan addressing the conference. Photo credit: Speaker Ryan’s office.

Speaker Paul Ryan announced a new project to publish enrolled legislation as structured data (in United States Legislative Markup Language). The project encompasses all enrolled bills (the final copies of legislation passed identically by both Houses of Congress), public laws, and statutes at large. In its first phase, all enrolled bills from the 113th Congress forward (i.e. January 2013 forward) and all statutes at large from the 108th Congress forward (January 2003 forward) will be published online in the same structured data format in which the U.S. Code is published.

While this sounds technical, what it does it allow the Congress to begin using more sophisticated tools to manage its legislation, including how it is written and updated. It becomes possible to tell better stories around what has happened with bills enacted into law, including formatting the laws so that one can see how they have changed over time.

It is expected that ultimately all legislation enacted by Congress will become available as structured data. Because much of the federal law is non-codified, this will make it easier to show how the law has evolved over time and reflect the current state of the law at any given time.

In addition to the technical details, Speaker Ryan’s announcement underscored the House’s continued dedication to making important information about legislative activities available online and in formats that support analysis and reuse. It is a doubling-down on the commitment made at the beginning of the Congress, in the House Rules package, to ensure that legislative information is available to the public in structured data formats — to support improving congressional processes and public insight into congressional action.

The Congressional Data Coalition had asked for this improvement, and some member offices have been requesting these changes as well.

Steady Improvements and a New Project from the Bulk Data Task Force

The Bulk Data Task Force Presentation. Photo Credit: Alex Howard

Phone Directory. The House of Representatives has built and will release to the public in August an online telephone directory. Using responsive design, so that it works on mobile devices, the phone directory allows anyone to obtain phone numbers and address information for any House staffer via a cleverly-designed interface. You can sort by member office, committee, or search for a particular staffer.

A screenshot of the new telephone directory website.

It’s also possible to download the underlying data set, whether as a CSV or PDF. This may save the House money on printing directories and provide more up-to-date information, particularly as staff move around all the time. The website was built by the Clerk and is extensible, so it may become possible to include the staff issue areas at a future date.

Congress.gov Data Updates. In response to public requests, the bulk data behind Congress.gov will be updated every four hours so that users can download the most recent data. Coming soon will be an RSS feed that will tell users when the data has been updated, so users known when to run their update processes. This is a change from the once-a-day update, which was discussed at the last Bulk Data Task Force meeting and had created problems for some users. The data updates will also be reflected on the GitHub page so that programmatic users will know specifically which data has changed.

Congress.gov Interface Updates. Congress.gov now has legislative alerts and other new tools (including improving command line and other searches). On July 5th, THOMAS will be retired after 21 1/2 years of service.

Office of Law Revision Counsel. The OLRC had 4 significant updatesbuilding on work from last year.

First, it will expand information about non-positive law that’s made available to the public to include XML format, not just PDFs.

Second, the development of Ramseyers — to track changes for legislation reported out of committee — is proceeding and it is expected to be used as part of the legislative process. This goes hand in hand with the Amendment Impact Program, which eventually will be publicly available and will make it possible to see how amendments change bills and bills would change laws in real time.

Third, the legislative lookup and link tool, which provides contextual information about references inside legislation, will become a public tool that everyone can look up on a public website.

Fourth, the OLRC is developing with leg counsel a new/updated legislative markup language to encompass new uses and data types. This is a second generation legislative markup language, of which the first was the Bill DTDs, and will empower many more ways to make sense out of legislative language.

And Still More

Josh Tauberer retelling Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Photo Credit: Alex Howard.

I don’t want to get too deep into everything else for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to briefly mention:

  • The presentations on the use of mapping (GIS) data, particularly a fascinating presentation by CRS on the different kinds of maps they can generate for congressional staff. Additionally, it’s worth noting how Rep. Takano’s office uses maps to keep track of communications from constituents. The Senate’s GIS working group is of particular interest to anyone who wants to use geographic data to understand policy issues.
  • A great discussion on “consuming the law” which delved deep into when/whether it is possible for leg support offices to move towards focusing on electronic/online publication and moving away from print.
  • There’s much more, including great panels on five hacks for congress, the unfinished (digitization) work of congress, Josh’s excellent Mr. Smith presentation, UK and New Zealand digitization efforts, and the future of legislative publishing.

If you want still more, here are recaps of prior Legislative Data and Transparency Conferences: