Advocates for greater government transparency and accountability hope a new database containing the texts of all bills from the 113th Congress will push the nation’s highest legislative body into a transparency-minded and data-driven 21st Century.
Legislation is at the “heart” of how Congress represents the nation, but Congress.gov isn’t very computer or user friendly, said Jim Harper, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. So Harper and his colleagues at Cato set out to change things with the Deepbills Project.
It took more than two years to complete the process of adding rich XML markup to every version of all 10,637 introduced bills during the 113th Congress. The XML makes it far easier for computers to locate particular bills, amendments and references to federal agencies or current laws.
The result is a searchable, downloadable database that empowers “computer-aided oversight of Congress,” Harper said.
“They (Congress) have been doing some things but they could always do more and they could always do it faster,” Harper said. “Now we’ve sort of blazed a trail.”
Sean Vitka, federal policy manger for the Sunlight Foundation, said this kind of transparency is vital.
“The Deepbills project takes good work already done by Congress to make bills available in XML and adds even more functionality for civic hackers and others trying to make the legislative process publicly accessible and understandable,” Vitka said. “This effort, and others like it, strengthen our democracy and should be applauded.”
Harper and others hope the Cato effort will motivate Congress to doing this — and more — on its own.
“The hope is that Congress starts doing it itself,” Harper said.
“Congress has to take this and make it official,” said Hudson Hollister, founder and executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition. “They’ve got to take the lessons from what Cato is showing and decide to adopt some more electronic structure for legislation than what’s there today.”
Currently, Congress.gov has limited search functions, making it difficult for citizens, journalists, researchers, and businesses affected by legislation.
Deepbills’ more powerful search functionality will also help congressional staffers and Members of Congress more quickly check current laws before drafting new ones to prevent duplicating or contradicting current laws, Hollister said.
“There are benefits for public transparency, there are benefits internally, for the people who work on the bills, and it opens the possibility for automated compliance in the future,” Hollister said.
Cato’s data could also help non-profit and citizen watchdogs make sure federal funds reach their intended destination. Currently, the Treasury Department takes appropriations bills, “and they use pencils and highlighters to figure out what accounts the money has to go into,” Hollister said.
Now that Cato has marked up appropriations bills, the Treasury Department could harness that data to electronically track the flow of funds from start to finish.
“The appropriations bills, those documents are the beginning of that process,” Hollister said. “They are the first link of the chain. If every link were electronic, then that means citizens could take an appropriations block data, and they could see how the money goes downward all the way through the whole process.”
If Congress picks up where Cato left off, one day, regulated entities could automate basic compliance tasks with data, instead of using teams of lawyers to constantly keep up with current legislation, Hollister said.
“I see Cato’s project as the first step down a very long road to automation,” Hollister said.
Hollister’s Data Transparency Coalition expects to see somebody in Congress introduce a bill soon requiring legislation to be expressed in an electronic format, consistent across the House and Senate, and providing an official entity to oversee the process.
“As everything is moving forward, government has to keep pace,” said Sean Moulton, open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight. “They’re spending the public’s money, and they need to be keeping up with that level of expectation.”
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