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.

House of Reps’ Spending Info Is Now Online as Data

Yesterday the House of Representatives began publishing its spending data online as a spreadsheet (and continued publishing it online as a PDF file).

As Josh Tauberer explains in Open Government Data: The Book, the compilation of spending data, known as the Statements of Disbursements, includes “how much congressmen and their staffs are paid, what kinds of expenses they have, and who they are paying for those services.” While it does not contain all the nitty-gritty details, the Disbursements data can tell you a lot about the health and activities of Congress.

Yesterday’s publication includes the full dataset for the first quarter of 2016 in a 17.8 MB CSV file, and a smaller 502 KB summary file in CSV format. The information is also published as a PDF, which it has been since November 2009.Continue Reading

Emerging Standards of Parliamentary Accountability Panel Discussion

by Júlia Keserű

The 3rd International Open Government Data Conference in Ottawa is part of a full week of open data events. Alongside the pre-conference events, the National Democratic Institutethe Sunlight Foundation, and the Latin American Network on Legislative Transparency, as core partners in OpeningParliament.org, a community of civic organizations dedicated to opening up parliamentary data, will co-host a three-hour pre-conference event on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 27, from 2:00 to 5:00pm. The meeting will be held in the Shaw Conference Centre in Ottawa, Room 201.

The goal of the pre-conference discussion is to discuss emerging standards for parliamentary accountability, as well as the data needed to monitor compliance with them. The panelists will showcase some of the relevant work around standards and norms on openness, including the introduction of discussion documents on standards on three specific topics:

1) Parliamentary Conduct and Ethics (presented by Scott Hubli and Greg Brown, National Democratic Institute)

2) Money, Politics and Transparency (presented by Lindsay Ferris, Sunlight Foundation)

3) Lobbying (presented by Daniel Freund, Transparency International EU)

The discussion will be co-moderated by Senator Hernán Larraín, chair of the Bicameral Commission on Transparency of the Congress of Chile, and Alisha Todd, director general of ParlAmericas.

A panel discussion and introduction of these new global standards will be followed by breakout sessions on each of the three topics. If you have any questions, please email Dan Swislow (dswislow@ndi.org) or Julia Keseru (jkeseru@sunlightfoundation.com).

Please RSVP for the open parliament pre-conference event using this link.

Save the date: Bulk Data Task Force meeting

The next meeting of the Bulk Data Task Force will be Thursday, December 18, from 1-3 in the Capitol Visitor Center, room HVC-200. More information to come.

Electronic Toolbox for Congress

(Cross-posted from DanielSchuman.com)

Here is a rundown of free digital tools any self-respecting congressional staffer, Member of Congress, journalist, or public advocate should consider using. All are free, run on information published by Congress or cobbled together from official sources, and most are built on open source code. (Many of the developers are members of the Congressional Data Coalition.)

Committee Meeting Calendar

While you could pay $1000 annually to subscribe to a daily calendar of committee hearings, GovTrack publishes an automatically-updated calendar that lists all hearings and meetings in the House in Senate at no cost to you. Alternatively, subscribe to GovTrack’s alerts, which tracks particular committees and bills.

Follow House Floor Action

The app Capitol Bells tells you whenever there is a House floor vote and provides essential context (such as what the vote is on). Used by more than half the Members of the House, it’s an essential tool to keep an eye on the floor.

Google Alerts for Government (but not Google)

The Sunlight Foundation’s alert tool Scout is the most powerful way to be alerted to government actions. It sends email alerts based on your keywords for federal and state legislation, federal regulations, floor speeches, GAO Reports, IG reports, and some federal court opinions. It’s like having a staff of well-payed research assistants constantly hitting refresh on dozens of congressional websites.

Collaboratively Write the Bill

Public input on legislation is often useful but only with the recent launch of Madison is there a free tool that allows broad public engagement while retaining control of the document. Built by the OpenGov Foundation, it is open source and used by Congress and the White House.

Read the Bill

While Congress’ redesign of its legislative information system has brought many needed improvements, it still lacks a lot of important contextual information. GovTrack has provided legislative information for a decade and should be your first stop. If you’re interested in the cost of legislation, Jim Harper’s WashingtonWatch is the place to go.

Read the Law

Until this past year, there was no single free online source for all bills signed into law. But now you can look up and read public laws to your heart’s content by going to Legislink. Of course, if you want to read the US Code, there’s the Office of Law Revision Counsel’s official website as well as the longstanding champion of public access to legal information, Cornell’s LII. (Cornell has a ton of other stuff, having been in the business of free online access to law since the early 90s, before everyone else).

Congressional Staff Directory

You might guess Congress publishes a staff directory with the names of staffers and their areas of responsibility, but only private sector sources are available. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of the Sunlight Foundation, the website FindTheBest has a searchable directory of House and Senate staffers. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good (especially since it’s free). Sunlight has a downloadable version of the House information, too.

Inspector General Reports

Until very recently, it was impossible to find all the publicly available IG reports in one place. Thanks to the hard work of many volunteers, you can search IG reports from 65 offices at oversight.io.

Searchable Press Releases

Still a work in progress, Statementer pulls many congressional press releases into a central website searchable by the title of the release.

House Activities

While not third party apps, two congressional websites are worth their weight in gold. First, docs.house.gov the website docs.house.gov is a powerful source of information about House floor and committee activities. Second, the rules committee website in invaluable to see when a bill is ready to go to the floor (3 legislative days in advance), including any amendments that are offered.

A Few More Tricks

While these technically are not legislative-focused websites, they can be useful in monitoring/accessing information that is not user friendly.

    • ChangeDetection will send you an alert for whenever a webpage has changed. Certain committees have such awful websites that the only way to know what’s new is to get an alert when the page itself changes.
    • The Wayback Machine may be named after a cartoon time machine, but it allows you to see how websites appeared in the past. This is particularly helpful if a site has gone down or its content has changed.
    • Congress has a bad habit of purging congressional websites. But the web harvest, hosted by the Center for Legislative Archives, allows you to see congressional websites going back to 2006.

 

Final Thoughts

These websites are pretty cool, but there should be more of them. Even with recent progress, Congress and its legislative support agencies need to publish more information and do so in more useful formats. Congress also should enact legislation like the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, which will make additional troves of information publicly available. There also has to be further developments in how Congress collaborates with the public, whether through hackathons or the use of open source technology, but that is a discussion for another time.