An update on getting legislative data from the House

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.

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24 Comments

  1. It is astonishing that this data is not already on a (min)public ftp site for daily pulls. Let me know if you need a good IT Project Manager to handle. I will as my congressman to put the fields needed into a bill. RISKS!!!What do they fear???

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  2. I think what you’re doing here is wonderful. It’s about time someone designed and established some real tools to help monitor and repair this alleged democracy.

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  3. Congress seems to forget that we the people, are the government, not the other way around. There should be no problems, hassles, or anything else when it comes to getting this data. What are they afraid of? Critical thinking folks that can throw a monkey wrench into some of their unconstitutional laws.

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  4. what and make the Gov accessable to thevoting public? you know they like tring to keep us in the dark. transparent gov. what a JK. those Ass hats dnt want us to know what is going on, becaue we may have something to say.

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  5. The spread sheet should include all the lobby data as well, e.g. a list of which members and amounts received as well as the “other purposes” buried in the bill.

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    1. Hi, Ron. We’re only asking the Library of Congress to provide information it is already collecting. That’s the sort of information you’ll see on http://beta.congress.gov. Other sort of information is collected by other legislative branch agencies, and it may already be available to varying degrees.

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  6. What I find funny with this is that they think that they (Congress) make this decision. “We the People”, thier bosses tell them what they are to do! But, it seems that inconvenient part of our foundation as a nation has long been forgotten by our employees. It is time to take action. As with employees, when they do not do as they are told or break company polic, they are terminated. Congress is and should not be any different. So, as bosses it is now up to us the “People”. They have been council as to our wish, our orders & the reprocussion of disobey this order. If from this date they do not do their job it is up to all of us to see to their termination. It is that simple.

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  7. A pet peeve is attempting to organize and tabulate data from scanned copies; it take man hours – to input that much information. And of course, the government could release the “data”. And I love this site. I was introduced by a college professor. She utilized it as a research tool for her students.

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  8. Congress has been totally autonomous for so long that they actually think they are entitled to that condition. Thank you for pushing them. Keep poking!

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  9. I like the idea of including donations. I like even better the idea of HJ Res 29 that says corporations are not people and money is not speech.

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  10. What We the People are operating under is the constitution OF the US. They are operating under the constitution FOR the US Corporation. Or is it the other way around? ? 1871 Act Congress approved. This is how they are getting away with it we need to repeal that act first then get back to the real Constitution.

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  11. How do we track the legislative cost of every bill placed before Congress?
    (Passed or Defeated)
    Government Accounting Office?

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  12. First of, can’t thank you enough for what you (or as we say in Texas, all y’all) do.
    Second, is there anything specific that we who are so grateful for Govtrack, can do?
    And third, thanks for the update on this.
    And fourth, I also was taken more than just a little a back by the comment “And the Library of Congress apparently told the House that there are “risks” if the public uses websites like GovTrack. Excuse us!”
    Somebody up there needs to have knot jerked in them.

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  13. It seems to me the good O Boys of Congress has forgotten a statement, which says: “We the people in order to form a more perfect union. . . . . . ”
    It sure doesn’t say Congress formed a more perfect union. Thanks for your good work in our behalf!!!!

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  14. Tracking what bills my congressman and senators votes for and against is critical and should be part of an easy to use public record. In fact it should be published in my local newspaper at least monthly. I guess it’s not because it’s too hard to obtain. Thank you for your efforts.

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