Public Comment to the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee for FY2014

I will be submitting the following public comment to the House Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch regarding Public Access to Legislative Information.

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I write to urge the subcommittee to expand funding for legislative transparency.

I am the president of Civic Impulse LLC, which operates the free legislative tracking service GovTrack.us. Our website has become an authoritative source for legislative information:

  • More citizens turn to GovTrack.us for information about the status of legislation than the Library of Congress (LOC)‘s THOMAS and Congress.gov websites. [See compete.com.]
  • Hundreds of House and Senate staff use GovTrack.us each day.
  • More than 70 congressmen use GovTrack services to display congressional district maps and their voting record on their official website.

Why is this? GovTrack.us has become the de facto authoritative source for legislative information because the Congress does not publish enough “bulk legislative data.” In 2004 we stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the lack of information coming from the Congress. It is long past due for the House to correct this problem.

When the Committee released a draft report last year indicating it intended to have legislative branch agencies publish less bulk data, The Washington Post picked up on the story and wrote:

“At Congress’s ’90s-vintage archive site, there’s no way to compare bills side by side. No tool to measure the success rate of a bill’s sponsor. And there’s certainly no way to leave a comment. Congress makes it hard for outside sites to do any of this, either, by refusing to give out bulk data on its bills in a user-friendly form.” (“Congressional data may soon be easier to use online,” The Washington Post, June 8, 2012.)

Soon after, the Speaker and Majority Leader formed the “Bulk Data Task Force.” Since the formation of the task force, new bulk data projects have been completed at the Government Printing Office (GPO) including bulk bill text and at the House Clerk (committee schedules and documents and bulk floor action data).

“Bulk data” is a core component of any government information dissemination program. The House Clerk publishes roll call vote results as bulk XML data. In 2009, the Government Printing Office began offering bulk data for bill text, the Federal Register, and other publications. The Office of Law Revision Counsel publishes the United States Code in multiple bulk data formats. Bulk data can be produced at a fraction of the cost of other information dissemination methods, such as colorful websites.

Yet much information about the Congress remains out of public view. There is no public bulk data for the status of legislation (the LOC “BSS” database), amendments, or committee votes. I believe that eventually all official artifacts of the legislative process should be available online, free, in real time, and as structured bulk data. [See Recommendations to the Bulk Data Task Force.]

And, sadly, proposals for cost-reduction threaten the public’s access to the law itself. A 2013 congressionally-funded report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) called for the Congress to consider charging the public fees to read the law online at GPO’s website. NAPA’s report is severely out of touch. There is no dispute that it is a moral imperative for Congress to fund programs that provide broad access to the law and other parts of the public record.

GovTrack.us is a demonstration that bulk data creates broad public access and that bulk data is also the most cost-effective way to create access. Since 2004, GovTrack.us has reached tens of millions of individuals at a cost of less than $1 million.

The Committee can advance broad public access to legislative information by providing adequate funding for:

  • Publishing the LOC legislative status (“BSS”) database as bulk data. [See Recommendations to the Bulk Data Task Force.]
  • Enhancing GPO’s highly successful FDSys system.
  • Creating bulk data program officers at GPO, LOC, and under House Clerk.
  • Evaluating the cost and impact of legislative transparency by an organization that believes in the public’s right to primary legal documents (i.e. not NAPA).

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on legislative branch appropriations for FY 2014.

Joshua Tauberer

President, Civic Impulse LLC

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