Senate Joins House In Publishing Legislative Information In Modern Formats

There’s big news from today’s Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force meeting. The United States Senate announced it would begin publishing text and summary information for Senate legislation, going back to the 113th Congress, in bulk XML. It would join the House of Representatives, which already does this. Both chambers also expect to have bill status information available online in XML format as well, but a little later on in the year.

This move goes a long way to meet the request made by a coalition of transparency organizations, which asked for legislative information be made available online, in bulk, in machine-processable formats. These changes, once implemented, will hopefully put an end to screen scraping and empower users to build impressive tools with authoritative legislative data. A meeting to spec out publication methods will be hosted by the Task Force in late January/early February.

The Senate should be commended for making the leap into the 21st century with respect to providing the American people with crucial legislative information. We will watch closely to see how this is implemented and hope to work with the Senate as it moves forward.

In addition, the Clerk of the House announced significant new information will soon be published online in machine-processable formats. This includes data on nominees, election statistics, and members (such as committee assignments, bioguide IDs, start date, preferred name, etc.) Separately, House Live has been upgraded so that all video is now in H.264 format. The Clerk’s website is also undergoing a redesign.

The Office of Law Revision Counsel, which publishes the US Code, has further upgraded its website to allow pinpoint citations for the US Code. Users can drill down to the subclause level simply by typing the information into their search engine. This is incredibly handy.

The Library of Congress is continuing to upgrade Congress.gov and copying all content over from THOMAS. Information expected to be available on Congress.gov in early 2015 information includes the Federalist papers and video streams for committees. Some work remains to be done, including moving over bill information from the late 80s to early 90s, senate executive branch communications, and the appropriations’ citation tables. All materials are not expected to be ported over to Congress.gov until after the close of FY 2015 (which is October 1.)

The Amendment Impact Program, which shows how a bill would amend the law and an amendment would affect a bill, is still under construction. The next step to bringing this program online is to embed the process into the workflow for the House Rules Committee to make sure it works properly. The FY 2015 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, which just was enacted into law as part of the CRomnibus, provides a steady source of funding for these efforts.

All in all, these are wonderful developments. House and Senate staff, as well as those as legislative support agencies, should be commended for their hard work. We are looking forward to seeing what the new year brings.

Update: Here’s a few press releases and celebratory blogposts:

And video from the announcement.

Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship

Mozilla is launching the new Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship – a 10-month program designed to find emerging technical leaders who have a passion for Internet policy and advocacy. They’re in the midst of recruiting qualified applicants.

Here’s a bit more about the program:

  • Good candidates are developers, technologists, hackers and data crunchers – policy and politics expertise not required, but we’re looking for interest in the advocacy space, in making good change happen for the Internet.
  • The fellows will spend 10 months embedded in one of our host organizations: the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Knowledge, Free Press, the Open Technology Institute, and Amnesty International.
  • Fellows will be immersed in projects that create better technical understanding among civil society and policy makers.
  • Perhaps the most important detail: The Fellowships are paid positions.

The deadline to apply is December 31st. Interested candidates can learn more and apply through https://advocacy.mozilla.org/.

Congressional Data Coalition Joins “Free Law Founders”

The Congressional Data Coalition is pleased to join the Free Law Founders, a nation-wide organization that shares resources and expertise around opening up laws, legislation, and the lawmaking process online.

From their website:

The Free Law Founders is a nation-wide, collaborative effort open to all people who want to improve how laws and legislation are produced and presented to citizens of American states and cities. Our goal is to modernize how democracy works in the United States from the ground up. To get there, we’re creating open source tools and open data formats government workers need to get their jobs done efficiently, effectively and accountably. And we’re building digital democracy platforms so citizens can finally access legislative information online in user-friendly, interactive formats that make sense. And we’re making all of our work available on the Internet for any community to reuse at no cost.

More information about Free Law Founders is here.

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.

Federal Snow Storm Aid, Self-Government and CRS Reports

(Crossposted from R Street)

The Federation of American Scientists recently posted a copy of a report titled, “Major Disaster Declarations for Snow Assistance and Severe Winter Storms: An Overview.” The document was produced by the Congressional Research Service, an agency where I worked for a decade. The report is fascinating on a few counts.

First, it likely will come as news to much of America that the U.S. government provides funds to localities clobbered by blizzards. The Federal Emergency Management Agency administers aid for both “snow assistance” and for “severe winter storms.” What’s the difference? The report explains:

“According to FEMA, a snowstorm is an event in which a state has record or near-record snowfall in one or more counties that overwhelms the capability of state and local government to respond to the event. Severe winter storms, on the other hand, are events that occur during the winter season that include one or more of the following conditions: snow, ice, high winds, blizzard conditions, and other winter conditions that cause substantial physical damage or property loss.”

The CRS report finds that $2.7 billion in federal aid was provided over the past five years, most of it going to help cover the cost of debris removal, infrastructure repair, and, yes, snow removal. This isnot a new policy unleashed by an activist Obama Administration—in fact, it is carried out consequent to the Stafford Act (42 U.S.C. 5122), a four-decade old statute. As another CRS reportnotes, a century ago, the feds had no role in disaster response and recovery. It was purely a local matter. But, bit by bit, the responsibility for disaster response and recovery has shifted from states and localities to the feds.

This snow aid report also is noteworthy because it illustrates a basic truth that is not widely accepted: governance is incredibly complicated. Too often, one hears it said that anyone with good horse sense can stride in Congress and begin governing well. In truth, governance, particularly in the 21st century, is fantastically complex. The federal government is a multi-trillion dollar conglomerate, undertaking an incredible number of activities. To be an effective legislator or congressional staffer who can make smart policy, one needs an immense amount of schooling in the nuts-and-bolts of government works. And as this report illustrates, that is a major role of the Congressional Research Service. This report walks the reader through the basics, explaining what the policy is, what it costs, and how it is administered.

Which leads to a final observation. Nowhere else on the Internet can one find this information in one document. This report became available to the public only because FAS, a private organization, has friends on the Hill. FAS, commendably, publicly shares whatever CRS reports it can get, which is a real benefit. Currently, CRS is not allowed to share its reports with the public, and Congress itself does not post them on Congress.gov. Congress should share these reports with the public. The public would benefit from free access to these nonpartisan, objective documents. CRS reports help Members of Congress better do their jobs, and they can help the public better understand the government that is to serve them.

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.

Save the Date: 1st of 2 Multidisciplinary Hackathons on U.S. Congressional Data & Processes

Boston Kickoff Weekend Co-Hosted by Harvard University’s Ash Center and The OpenGov Foundation; Finals on Capitol Hill Spring 2015

The weekend of January 30, 2015, The OpenGov Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will host a multi-disciplinary hackathon to design what the future of the US Congress should look like.

The event will bring together political scientists, designers, technologists, lawyers, organizational psychologists, and lawmakers to look for multi-layered, thoughtful ways for citizens to get involved in their government, and for elected officials to better communicate with citizens and understand their needs, more efficiently craft legislation, and more effectively address the complex issues of the 21st Century.

Projects presented at the end of the hackathon will be evaluated by a panel of judges. After a second hackathon hosted by The OpenGov Foundation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in spring 2015, the winning teams will have an opportunity to present their projects to lawmakers and other high-level officials inside Congress.

The event is co-sponsored by The Sunlight Foundation, Congressional Management Foundation, Microsoft New England, CODE2040, and Generation Citizen.

You can register here.

Schedule:
Friday, January 30, 2015
4:10pm: Introductory Panel followed by happy hour

Saturday, January 31 and Sunday, February 1, 2015
8:30am- 5 p.m.: Hackathon

Location:

Harvard Kennedy School of Government
79 JFK St., Cambridge, MA

View/submit project proposals:
https://hackpad.com/Hack4Congress-kiKLDML5Rr9

Click here for more information.