The Recap: Library of Congress 2022 Virtual Public Forum

On September 21, 2022, the Library of Congress held its 2022 Virtual Public Forum on the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information. You can find summaries of the 2020 and 2021 forums here and here. It is our understanding that video of the proceedings will be made publicly available, and we will update this blogpost when that happens.

The forum mainly focused on Congress.gov and access to legislative information through electronic means, although it included significant discussion on digitization efforts. Legislative branch stakeholders made presentations on their work, including the House Clerk, Secretary of the Senate, the Government Publishing Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Law Library of Congress, and the Congressional Research Service. The Library noted several hundred individuals RSVPed, and participants voiced their appreciation for the forum and recommended continuing it in the future.

An agenda was not released in advance of the meeting, which lasted 3 hours, and covered recent enhancements to Congress.gov, its features and new releases, recent projects, updates from data partners, a presentation from the Congressional Budget Office on its transparency efforts, a discussion of legislative data standards, a presentation on the Constitution Annotated, a brief history of Congress.gov and THOMAS, and a Q&A at the end. We suggest that, for future meetings, the agenda and rough timing be published in advance.

Library of Congress

The LC celebrated Congress.gov’s 10-year anniversary during its opening presentation. LC’s Robert Brammer provided a rundown of Congress.gov’s most recent enhancements while Margaret Wood provided details about the recently announced Congress.gov API, which we wrote about here.

The API is a work in progress, and the LC will soon have a new endpoint where you can get information about committee meetings, hearing transcripts, senate communications, committee prints, and perhaps more. LC said they are announcing more improvements to the API shortly and love receiving user feedback on their Github page. Creating a public-facing API is a longstanding public request.

The LC, along with its data partners in the offices of the House Clerk, Senate Secretary, and GPO, also said they are looking at how to enhance information in the Congressional Record by adding hyperlinks to video of corresponding portions of the floor debate.

In response to a question from the public, it was made clear there will not be live roll call vote data on the API. The Senate does not electronically record roll call votes as they happen and thus such a feature would not be possible under current rules. The House, which does have electronic voting, cited quality assurance as a reason to not publish real-time roll call vote data. As members still have the option of casting votes at the desk and changing their vote, the QA process may be intended to both make sure votes are accurately recorded and give members a chance to clean things up if they change their vote.

A question on how long it takes for legislation to show up on Congress.gov, which can be lengthy at times, was inadvertently misunderstood by the panel, which instead focused on the quality assurance process necessary to ensure that legislation published online is accurate. I think the question was focused on publicly tracking how long it takes for bill text to show up on Congress.gov and speeding up that process. At times, legislation can pass a chamber before the text shows up on Congress.gov. To be sure, the QA process described by the panel explains why it can take time for legislation to show up, but does not address the extent of the gap and how it might be closed. (You might remember GPO’s Director testifying on this issue before the Modernization Committee earlier this year.)

The Senate

The Senate announced it is creating a common data store for sharing its information with Legislative branch agencies. This modernization effort means much legislative data will be more readily available to Legislative branch data partners in a faster timeframe and in more useful formats. By the end of the year, the office will move completely to XML and provide a single point of data for status, communications to the Senate, treaties, and more.

In addition, the Secretary of the Senate office announced the creation of a video task force, composed of many legislative branch stakeholders, to address the archiving and publication of congressional video, including that of committees and subcommittees. Congressional video is one of those thorny issues in need of modernization. Among the goals will be to connect video of congressional proceedings with information about those proceedings published on congress.gov.

Government Publishing Office

The Government Publishing Office announced that, by the end of the year, Senate amendments will be published on and searchable through the congress.gov website. By comparison, currently Congress.gov links to a page in the Congressional Record where amendment text is published. We note that GPO has been a proponent of public data access for years, and launched its own public-facing API in 2018.

In addition, as previously published on our blog, GPO is improving how the text of legislation will be published on Congress.gov. Going forward, the text will be dynamic, easier to read, incorporate a responsive design, and not have those annoying hard line breaks.

Law Library of Congress

The Law Library provided an update on its Remote Metadata Program, which started in 2016 and uses interns and volunteers to help comb through data and text files to create metadata and keywords from historical legal material that will facilitate the discoverability of this material on the web. One of the current projects includes reviewing the Digest of Public General Bills created by the Legislative Reference Service from 1935-1972 to curate text files of the bill summaries that will be added to Congress.gov. The Library currently has 39 interns in three working groups for this academic year.

Congressional Research Service

The Constitution Annotated was the focus of a presentation by the Congressional Research Service, which announced they are improving the usability of this 100-year-old legal treatise. They are rewriting the document for usability and accessibility on the internet by reshaping its articles and making increasing use of “plain english” labels.

The Congressional Research Service disagreed with a request from the public to improve the clarity and readability of bill summaries published on Congress.gov. The requester seemed to be aiming at the point of encouraging a plain writing process to help make the summaries more widely understandable. CRS suggested that the summaries are probably as good as they can be given the complexities in the legislation and no improvements would be possible. We note that subscription services over provide plain-language summaries and may serve as a useful point of comparison.

The Library also demurred from a request for publishing current CRS reports online as HTML and making historical reports available on the internet. CRS said the issue was being discussed internally, which is the same answer that was given last year.

A follow up question on making the current CRS reports available to the public as HTML, as they are already made available internally, prompted some pushback. The Library and CRS were directed in 2018 to make CRS reports publicly available and given the authority to publish the reports in additional formats. When asked why that authority was not being exercised, the Library’s response was that the PDFs are the authoritative format for CRS reports, suggesting that the Library was uninterested in publicly publishing the reports in other useful formats. That implicit answer goes against the grain of the last decades’ efforts by the Library and its data partners to publish legislative information, including the text of bills, online as data or semi-structured formats, which facilitates use and resume of that information. The Library also implied that it needs congressional authorization to publish that information online as HTML, which makes one wonder how it reads its legislative authorities, whether the Library has encouraged such an effort, and how it would respond to such a request.

Congressional Budget Office

The Congressional Budget Office’s presentation had a few notable updates, including making cost estimates easier to find and search through the development of predictable URLs as providing weekly cost estimates for legislation on suspension.

Improving functionality of the Congress.gov calendar was addressed as well. Currently, Congress.gov publishes all hearings/markups taking place in either chamber (pursuant to a request by appropriators). A question was raised about publishing bills scheduled for floor consideration in either chamber. That way, it would be possible to see at once the legislation scheduled for that day on the floor or in committee. The ensuing discussion addressed where an authoritative list of legislation set for floor consideration in either chamber could be found.

A further suggestion was made that if the Congress.gov calendar were to include a list of legislation set for floor consideration in either chamber, perhaps the CBO estimates for legislation on suspension could also be incorporated into that calendar.

Upcoming events

Next week the Congressional Data Task Force will hold its quarterly meeting with internal and external Legislative branch data stakeholders.

All in all, this forum provides a useful exchange of information. Given the length of the forum and amount of content it covers, it would be useful for the Library to more regularly hold virtual meetings with the public about its efforts to modernize how it plans on making legislative information available to the public.