For more than a decade I’ve been prodding Congress to publish something as simple as a spreadsheet of bills in Congress. They have pretty websites listing bills like Congress.gov, yes, but if you want to do data analysis like we do, what you need is a spreadsheet. But we’re not going to get that spreadsheet any time soon.
Earlier this year I submitted written testimony to the House Appropriations committee and last month I wrote a letter to House Speaker Boehner about this issue, an issue that two years ago Boehner promised would be a priority. We keep hearing from Boehner that this is important to him, yet we’re not seeing the data we want.
At a semi-public [edit: ok it was public] meeting yesterday in the Capitol, staff from the office of the House Clerk, the Library of Congress, and the Government Printing Office updated members of the public on the status of legislative data programs. We learned that the House will be testing the publication of bill summary data in the first quarter of 2014. This data will contain the Library of Congress bill summaries, like we pull into GovTrack here.
Having that data would make it easier for us to pull those summaries into GovTrack. But we’re not particularly interested in it because those summaries are often as hard to read as the bills themselves. So… thanks, but it’s not the data we’ve been asking for.
It is a good opportunity for the House to figure out how to publish bulk data. So what the House learns in doing this can be applied later on to the data we actually want.
But the bottom line is that bill status data, the really core data, is not even on the agenda until at least the second quarter of 2014, and probably much later. Bill status data is what bills have been introduced, who sponsored them, what actions they’ve had, etcetera. We currently get that data through a backward and dumb process of reverse-engineering. Even congressional staff can’t get the data and come to us for it. But the Library of Congress has the data and we just wished they would share it.
Congress isn’t against transparency, at least not exactly. The House’s record on legislative data in 2011-2012 was pretty good, and this year the House has a great new website listing committee meetings and they’ve just completed converting most of the United States Code into the XML data format. These are huge and important milestones on their own. At the same time, there are serious road blocks. The Senate is not participating in any dialog on legislative data. And the Library of Congress apparently told the House that there are “risks” if the public uses websites like GovTrack. Excuse us!
We’re going to keep on prodding Congress until we get the data we need to keep you better informed about what’s happening on the Hill.