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Congress Mulls API For Congressional Data 121

Posted by kdawson
from the it's-a-start dept.
Amerika sends in a Wired blog post on the desire in Congress to make data on lawmaking more easily available to the public. The senator who introduced the language into an omnibus appropriations bill wants feedback on the best way to make (e.g.) the Library of Congress's Thomas data more available — an API or bulk downloads, or both. Some comments on the blog posting call for an authenticated versioning system so we can know unequivocally how any particular language made its way into a bill. "Congress has apparently listened to the public's complaints about lack of convenient access to government data. The new Omnibus Appropriations Bill includes a section, introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), that would mark the first tangible move toward making federal legislative data available to the public in bulk, so third parties can mash it up and redistribute it in innovative and accessible ways. This would include all the data currently distributed through the Library of Congress's Thomas web site — bill status and summary information, lists of sponsors, tracking timelines, voting records, etc."
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Congress Mulls API For Congressional Data

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  • ...then I'm all for it.

    Clarity is a good thing in government.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Shakrai (717556)

      What good is accountability when most Congressional Districts are drawn [wikipedia.org] in such a way that the real election winds up being during the primary where only the most rapid party supporters (typically 10-15% of those eligible) turn out to vote?

      • You're right, we shouldn't have increased accountability.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Shakrai (717556)

          That's not what I said. I just question how "accountable" they are when they have a 95% chance of being re-elected as long as they pander to the party base. In the final analysis the only way you can hold a politician accountable is to vote them out of office. Via gerrymandering and pork they've rigged the game to make this virtually impossible. Do you see the problem?

          • by Em Emalb (452530)

            Then I misinterpreted what you meant to say. My bad.

            Anyway, you're right. The system is broken. Those who manage to claw their way into political power seemingly do everything they can to remain there. The process itself is flawed and our current two party system needs repair something fierce.

            Slowdown cowboy! it's been a good 90 seconds since you last posted. That's not nearly long enough of a wait!

      • by homer_ca (144738)

        and not only that, *rabid* supporters too! But seriously primaries are no contest either. I believe more members of Congress are replaced by death in office than by primary challenges (I can't remember the exact stat and can't google it. It was either "by death in office" or "by death in office and retirement").

    • by kenj0418 (230916)

      I assumed there was some sort of API anyway, I assumed thats what sites like opencongress.org were using:

      http://www.opencongress.org/ [opencongress.org]

      • by skarphace (812333)

        I assumed there was some sort of API anyway, I assumed thats what sites like opencongress.org were using:

        http://www.opencongress.org/ [opencongress.org]

        Sort of. Thomas [loc.gov] outputs all of it's bill data in XML and all URLs are in a nice predictable form(okay, not so nice). It's basically a big REST [wikipedia.org] API in it's own right. Quite easy to parse.

        An easier to use API would be an improvement, but congress already puts it out there and makes it quite simple to take and use. What I really want to see, is some sort of standardization of state legislatures. In the organization I work for, state legislation has to all be pulled by hand. Lots and lots of man-hours.

  • Law for geeks (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Baldrson (78598) * on Friday March 06, 2009 @11:53AM (#27092009) Homepage Journal
    Law is code*.

    Legislation is a change to the code.

    The legislative process is change control.

    *It is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the "code base" of law in the US is designated by the prefix "United States Code".

    • Re:Law for geeks (Score:5, Informative)

      by gEvil (beta) (945888) on Friday March 06, 2009 @11:56AM (#27092051)
      I think you have that backwards. It is not entirely coincidental that the rules that a computer program follows are called "code".
    • by DrLang21 (900992)
      The only problem with the legislative process as change control is that it's hard to tell which coder is responsible for any given bug (or Easter egg!) in the system.
      • Re:Law for geeks (Score:5, Interesting)

        by orclevegam (940336) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:08PM (#27092221) Journal
        They should use something like GIT and assign each congress critter a login (and make the revision history available to the public). Not only could we follow the larger modifications of a bill at the central level as it moves through congress, but we could look at the branches each congress critter checks in and see what kinds of modifications occur in their own office. What would be really neat is if someone then took that data and did a bit of correlation between changes made at particular times and recent visits of lobbyists. Imagine the questions that might be raised if a congress critter has a recent visit by say a Microsoft lobbyist, and then a few days later amends a seemingly unrelated bill in a way that turns out to be beneficial to MS.
        • And before anyone makes a big deal out of it, feel free to replace any occurrence of Microsoft in the previous statement with any other entity of their choosing.
        • Re:Law for geeks (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Lord Bitman (95493) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:40PM (#27092593) Homepage

          I don't know about how git works for you, but for me, it requires a non-blank commit message. And if someone browses the log and sees a non-meaningful message, a message that doesn't explain the whole commit, or a singe commit which does "too much at once", questions get asked.

          That's why we need "Git for government". Lots of small commits, references to why they happened (ie: links to C-Span video, audio or transcripts from meetings, etc)

          This is something which needs to be taken on by someone on some level. It's not something which will happen immediately when someone passes a law requiring it. It'll need to be someone going up to a local lawmaker and dedicating all their time (100% of it) to tracking changes for them. Find out what's needed in terms of an interface to get real people to want to use it, make it so that non-programmers can benefit from it. Do this for one person, let anyone clone the results, and always be public about willingness to do it for anyone.
          Re-election time comes around, and the person you're "sponsoring" gets to say: "I'm all for government transparency. Every last paragraph I've put into a bill over the past two years has an explanation attached to it. The service I use to make this available to the public is free for any lawmaker, and similar methods are available for free to all members of the public. Why has my opponent not bothered to do the same? What is he trying to hide?"

          I would love to see an organization form around this very concept. "Free version control for government", a service provided by volunteers for absolutely anyone involved in writing laws or policy.

          I don't see it as something which would ever really happen, of course.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

            You're not going to get multiple tiny commits. You're going to get this from every single bill:

            Rev1: Senator Whatshisname. New bill proposal. (contents copied verbatim from lobbyist e-mail request, but this won't be specified anywhere)
            Rev2: Senate Committee chair. Updates from committee meeting. (massive replacement of the text, no names specified)
            Rev3: Senate Committee chair. Merged with House bill upon committee recommendation. (more replacement, no names specified)

            And simultaneously:
            Rev1: House Wh

            • ...which is pretty much what THOMAS gives you already. A diff function might be useful, provided the structure of the bill doesn't change much. Slashdotters are kidding themselves if they think legislators are going to track intermediate changes to draft versions.

              • The only revision history that ever really works is one that is completely invisible when used, and that you can't help but use. And those suck because they don't actually describe what or why something happened

            • Which is pretty much my point. It can't possibly work unless it's completely invisible to the actual lawmakers. Even something as simple as "Save to this particular server, everything will be diffed automatically, etc" is too much overhead and would never work. That's why I'm saying the only way it would ever work "properly" is if you had someone whose full-time job it is to follow a single lawmaker around and get copies of things as they are made, attend all the meetings and make notes about what was said,

          • I suggested "Git for government" to a UK MP [typepad.com] recently.
        • by Cyner (267154)

          Thank god someone mentioned that we already have Code Access and Revision Tracking protocols around. Pick one of them, any one, I wouldn't care if they chose CVS. Even CVS is better than what we have now!

          Here's a list, pick any Open Source one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_revision_control_software [wikipedia.org]

      • That is a serious problem; but it could be fixed with the application of tools that have been used for software stuff for years. It wouldn't be rocket surgery to have a system where the only way to start or change a bill would be with an authorized account in a revision control system. Then you could see exactly which account was responsible for any given changes. A lot of people wouldn't like it; but that is exactly why it needs to happen.
        • If something like that were really implemented, it wouldn't be used at all, save for a staffer occasionally being told to do the equivalent of a mass commit without merging, squashing everyone who gets in the way.

          People just don't work in a way which programmers would like. There are lots of "change this word here", etc, which is very vcs-friendly, but there is also a lot of "Based on the meetings, I wrote these 100 pages last week. Please review it."

          It's those "bulk commits" that we need to find a system t

      • SVN Blame, my friend. SVN Blame.

    • What you say is true, which suggests that it would be quite nice to take this a great deal further.

      We really should be using a revision control system for laws the way we do for code. Make read access public, and have commit access tied to official's accounts, with the ability to delegate to staff if they so desired(ie, Senator X has an account. If he wishes, he can authorize a SenatorX.MinionY account, so Minion Y can work on legislation for him; but it is immediately clear who is responsible, have it wo
    • When was the last time that Congress did a code review? The whole legislative process can boil down to a typical intern's approach to building software "write code, compile it, if it works, throw it into production until the boss (SCOTUS) says otherwise."

      The legislative process needs to be made more deliberate. There need to be teams of lawyers charged with reviewing laws and drafting up use cases. Unfortunately, you won't have that until something can be done to make politicians do their jobs, and not spen

      • by homer_s (799572)
        You misunderstand the motivation behind legislation. Read the 'bootlegger and the baptist' when you get a chance.

        Also, there is a difference between how a law emerges and how legislation emerges - the first is like evolution, people try different things and some order emerges; the second is like 'Intelligent Design'.
  • Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <`moc.liamg' `ta' `yppupcinataS'> on Friday March 06, 2009 @11:56AM (#27092045) Journal

    It'd be more useful to see laws written in something resembling plain language. There is no excuse for 1,000 page omnibus bills. If it was line-item budgets, that would be one thing.

    When you can't understand the law, you can't obey the law. And since ignorance of the law is no excuse, you can basically be arrested for anything. What a world.

    • When you can't understand the law, you can't obey the law.

      That's the point. One big step towards a police state is making sure that everyone is doing *something* illegal at all times. 99% of the time if you're not causing problems they just let it slide. Once you get on their bad side they slap you with a "Oh, you didn't know it was illegal to register your Gmail account with your local police department because your 17 year old ex girlfriend sent you photos of herself nude 10 years ago?" That's an arrestin.

    • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by DrLang21 (900992) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:02PM (#27092147)
      I used to think this until I started to realize the difficulty of writing plain language that was not ridiculously easy to technically interpret in a way that I completely did not intend. Thus I now try to avoid plain language when writing a contract. What's even scarier is that our laws are still often easy to bend in ways that were not intended. Plain language would probably make it a lot worse.

      Laws are fairly easy to understand when you read them through. The problem is that they are the driest most boring pieces of literature ever written.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by homer_ca (144738)

        Yes, you've certainly explained the need for jargon, whether it's legalese or technical. Although jargon is confusing and excludes non-experts, plain language is just too ambiguous. Ever had a non-technical person explain a computer problem to you in "plain language"? Yeah, it's like that.

      • by timeOday (582209)
        I'm amazed your point is not obvious to all the coders here on slashdot. What if your clients demanded you code in "plain english" so they could understand what they were getting? There's a reason we cannot do that.
    • Time Geithner. The Treasury Secretary, the guy in charge of the IRS, couldn't get his taxes right. Tom Daschle, former senate minority and majority leader, couldn't get his taxes right. Charlie Rangle, one of the most important people when it comes to tax law, couldn't get his taxes right. Every time a new cabinet is assembled, half a dozen people drop out of consideration because they didn't pay their taxes. And no doubt more refuse consideration for the same reason.

      People who write the law don't un

      • by maxume (22995)

        What if it is more a matter of them not trying very hard?

        (I do agree that the tax code is needlessly complex...)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mbone (558574)

      I will grant that some obsfucation is deliberate, but a lot of it is an attempt to be precise. Plain language is all too often ambiguous. If you have ever tried to write a complicated contract, you will know what I mean. It's not that different from writing code - simple metacode may not be so simple once you have allowed for all possible exceptions and strange conditions.

    • Re:Hmmph. (Score:5, Informative)

      by OctaviusIII (969957) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:37PM (#27092547) Homepage
      That 1,000 pages thing is misleading: bills are printed on half-sized pages, double-spaced, in rather large font (Times New Roman 16 or 18) with wide margins (at least 0.75"). Were it a normal ol' book, it would probably be in the 200-300 range.
      • by Dan Ost (415913)

        Can anyone give an explanation for why bills are printed this way?

        • Leaves room for comments to be inserted, and most of the people who read them are old and blind.

          • by redxxx (1194349)

            Why do our senators have elderly interns and clerks?

          • by dkleinsc (563838)

            Leaves room for comments to be inserted, and most of the people who read them are old and blind.

            Where did you get this idea that legislators actually read bills?

            • by skarphace (812333)

              Leaves room for comments to be inserted, and most of the people who read them are old and blind.

              Where did you get this idea that legislators actually read bills?

              Indeed. I'd say it's mostly twenty-something interns, 90% of the time.

        • by maxume (22995)

          Bigger letters are more important.

      • It'd be more useful to see laws written in something resembling plain language. There is no excuse for 1,000 page omnibus bills.

        That 1,000 pages thing is misleading: bills are printed on half-sized pages, double-spaced, in rather large font (Times New Roman 16 or 18) with wide margins (at least 0.75"). Were it a normal ol' book, it would probably be in the 200-300 range.

        Plain language is misleading.
        Ambiguous, fuzzy, prone to misunderstandings. You say one thing, people understand it to mean another. Frustrations all around.

    • There's a lot of arguing back and forth about whether the government should use plain language.

      The argument for is that then everybody can understand the law better; the argument against is that plain language tends to be ambiguous and the laws are complex in nature.

      I conjecture the following: plain language can be used to describe complex systems in unambiguous ways (to the extent the systems are unambiguous, at least).

      As a starting analogy, consider lambda calculus: you have three rewriting rules (variabl

      • by tepples (727027)

        As another example, consider simple.wikipedia.org: it attempts to describe everything the "normal" wikipedia describes, but in a simpler language.

        Not necessarily. Some subjects can't be discussed efficiently with only text. English Wikipedia works around this by allowing the limited use of non-free files under fair use rationales. But Simple English Wikipedia does not use non-free files at all. Therefore, any article about a non-free pictorial, graphic, sculptural, musical, or audiovisual work will lose any meaning that the file conveyed when translated into Simple English.

        • Some jargon is necessary. The vast majority is not.

          Legal writing in this country is still obeying conventions that were formed in english common law hundreds of years ago: I'm not talking about laws, I'm talking about things like writing the number out, then following it with the same number in parentheses (e.g "Five (5)" ) which is a disambiguation that crept in to legal documents because of clerks with bad penmanship.

          Indirect, passive grammar, certain torturous word choices "It having been said by the pla

    • by iluvcapra (782887)

      A 1,000 page bill is preferable to a 3 page bill [wikipedia.org].

      The less specific the law is, the more control the President and his appointees have in spending the money, and to do so with less oversight. I am sure that if you showed your average senator the source code tree for your average open-source application, he'd remark "there's no excuse for 5 million lines of code! How can anyone expect to understand it! It's obviously obtuse." The problem of course is he's talking about stuff that he doesn't understand, an

  • by BigHungryJoe (737554) on Friday March 06, 2009 @11:58AM (#27092073) Homepage

    Not a chance. They'd never be able to use the excuse "some anonymous person slipped in this provision at the last hour and I didn't want to not vote for the bill just because of this" again...

    • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:26PM (#27092425)

      Yep . . . this would provide transparency in government . . . and all politicians will scatter away like cockroaches, when you turn on the light in the room.

      No more secret reciprocal vote tradings, secret deals (my spotted owls, for your unneeded dam), etc.

      This thing will get quietly scuttled for . . . "technical" reasons.

    • by nametaken (610866)

      Oh how fantastic that would be. I see the textual bulk of legislation going down drastically as you cut out all the BS and make people accountable for the content.

      Hey, one can hope.

    • They're not going to commit any more than they absolutely have to. The revisions are just going to be snapshots of the bill at the various points where they are required to submit it to the record, as is the case now. Plus, the commits are all going to come from the same low-level staffer, who conveniently has a bad memory for who asked him to add what at the last hour.

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:00PM (#27092111) Homepage
    Bills should be accessible in a form similar to patches created by diff. There should be a web service that allows you to retrieve the affected USC titles, merge them, and then apply the new bill as a patch to the federal law so that you can quickly assemble a coherent view of how the law will change.
    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That would be the biggest improvement to THOMAS that they could make. Yes finding bills can be hard, but once you've found it, many time's it's incomprehensible because it reads exactly, no seriously exactly , like a raw diff.

      "Modify 1(A)(a) Subsection 2(b) by removing the word 'and' and replacing it with 'or'," with no indication of what 1(A)(a) Subsection 2(b) is.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Go to www.govtrack.us and ask for some funding to work on this as a project if you feel strongly about it.

  • The senator who introduced the language into an omnibus appropriations bill wants feedback on the best way to make (e.g.) the Library of Congress's Thomas data more available -- an API or bulk downloads, or both.

    Both. Duh.

  • by yurik (160101) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:06PM (#27092181)

    The process of the bill writing seems to me to be very similar with how the Wikipedia articles get started / mature. Wikipedia API was designed specifically to work with the bulk data (see http://en.wikipedia.org/w/api.php [wikipedia.org] ) - we can just adapt a similar approach.

    (Shameless plug: I was the dev who implemented the original wiki api)

  • by mbone (558574) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:06PM (#27092193)

    I have long thought that there should be a logic-based language for laws, at least for laws like the Tax code. My original idea in this direction was prolog, but something built on top of XML is probably more appropriate today.

    It should, for example, be possible to automatically check that some 400 page law doesn't contain 1 paragraph that totally changes some other law, or that, say, 20 pages of consumer protections are not negated by two lines 100 pages later. The legal language used is already close to meta-code, but right now this all has to be checked by hand, allowing untold mischief. It should also be possible to check for logical inconsistencies and missing if-then-else options.

    Some I am sure will see the current ... flexibility as a feature, not a bug, but I think it is high time to be able to do some automatic checking of what the Congress is doing and what proposed laws actually mean.

    • Shouldn't something similar to Perl be able to do just that? A bill contains references to every section of law it changes ("Public Law 103-34 Section 21a, Subsection B, line 32 shall read..."). If a script were written that could identify and read those references, couldn't that form the backbone of what you're referring to?
      • But what if the bill doesn't reference a section of law that it changes. What if you have part of one law that says that "Ice cream can not be sold on Tuesdays", and then part of another law is proposed that says that "Ice cream must be sold on the third Tuesday of the month". Unless the people writing the new law know about the old one, there's no way for them to reference the old law. There is no easy way to detect conflicts like this.

        Additionally a logical language for law would have additional benefits.

    • by maxume (22995)

      Unless you make a perfect language, there would still be mischief (because the mischief is intentional...).

      • by mbone (558574)

        there would still be mischief (because the mischief is intentional...).

        All too true. There is an eternal arms race here, and I have no illusions that any automated means would prevent all wrong doing. That is, I think, a test of articifical intelligence that is considerably more stringent than Turing's.

        However, just as people still use markup validators to check html, and compilers to check code, even though these will by no means catch all errors, putting law into a systematic form would certainly detect s

  • This is something that should have been looked at 15 years ago when the internet was starting to take off. An electronic copy with revision control to show how a bill has been changed and who introduced the changes is really needed and USEFUL system. Now we will be able to really see who is responsible for different things, not just the people who introduced the bill or were cosponsors, as well as who voted and how they voted on the bill. We won't just need to take their word on it that your representative
  • line-item vetos.

    Seriously. How many failed bills get shoved through as a rider on a more important bill (see the "stimulus" package for an example) because our elected officials are afraid to veto an otherwise solid bill with utter B.S. attached to it because they're afraid it would kill their career?

    There's too many examples to count of crap like this happening. It would be refreshing, to say the least. And it might remove some of the internal politicking from the process. (Vote for my bill and I'll le

    • You will never see line-item veto again since SCOTUS ruled it was unconstitutional.

      • by Em Emalb (452530)

        One can only hope they ruminate on it again and change their mind.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ceejayoz (567949)

        You will never see line-item veto again since SCOTUS ruled it was unconstitutional.

        If only there were a way to change the Constitution. What's a good word for that? Oh! Amending! Wouldn't it be cool if someone had thought of that when they wrote the thing?

        • by tepples (727027)
          With the partisan politics going on nowadays, how will we get the 2/3 of both houses and 3/4 of the states behind anything?
      • That depends on how it's implemented. You could have it set up so a President could veto a bill and send back a version to Congress that they must vote on without further changes. That might pass constitutional muster, since Congress still votes on the laws, and while not perfect, could be effective at getting rid of some amounts of pork.
    • Or, politicians could suck it up and realize that a solid bill with utter B.S. attached is just an utter B.S. bill. Oh wait, we're talking about politicians.
      • by Ornedan (1093745)

        It's more like their opponents get to go "Look how $name voted against this very necessary and solid bill!". Which wouldn't be much of a problem if your people weren't drooling morons that can't comprehend anything longer than a 5 second soundbite. Which is incidentally too short a time to defend yourself in by explaining why the evil addition was necessary to stop.

        • I'm not sure that is true. With all of the soundbites we hear about "bad earmarks" I'm sure a politician could claim that his opponent, by voting for the bill, was also voting to earmark a giant hole to be dug all the way to China for more efficient import of products by Walmart. I agree that the unwashed masses can't comprehend anything in detail, but you can still make your point with another soundbite back, particularly since our government lacks the ability to actually restrict a bill to limited topics.
    • I guess it takes a constitutional amendment to make that happen, and if so, let's do it. Also it's interesting that the Confederate president had line-item veto power explicitly granted in that constitution.

    • Line-item vetos are tricky, though - it gives the President huge power to legislate spending. A better proposal is the concept of royal prerogative: every spending measure must come from the Government in power. Canada used to have a problem with earmarks until they reinstated this practice. Still, I have no idea how this could work in the US, so I'll leave that up to the constitutional experts.
  • by peter303 (12292) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:07PM (#27092201)
    I routinely look at large bills on thomas.loc.gov to see whats in them. 485 last minute earmarks in the stimulus bill and 9000 in the 2009 budget bills. Enough to make you gag.

    These are sort of like an ebay auction: 24 hours before the vote these start to stream in. Often they are placeholders "text to be supplied" or very obscure references to the organization designated for the earmark. Not even the toiling interns who are supposed to vet these for their bosses can keep up last minute submissions.

    Ironically the TARP bill last year was very streamlined and only had one earmark. But that was a controversial federal judge raise.

    Another nausea in the bills are that 90% are resolutions commending people or organizations in their districts. this reads like the gossip pages in the newspapers. You see this if look at the full list of recent bills.
    • These are sort of like an ebay auction: 24 hours before the vote these start to stream in. Often they are placeholders "text to be supplied" or very obscure references to the organization designated for the earmark. Not even the toiling interns who are supposed to vet these for their bosses can keep up last minute submissions.

      There should be a rule that all text must be submitted into the bill 24 hours before the vote. No putting in "Text to be supplied" and sticking in stuff last second. No adding $2 mi

      • by Phroggy (441)

        1 is more complicated than it sounds - if it's an "economic stimulus" bill, that's broad enough to cover just about anything, although I suppose it should exclude things like changes to criminal law.

        2 probably doesn't have to be legislated, if you can get your 24-hour lockdown in place. Congressmen don't read the bills they vote for, because it's not reasonable for them to do so; make it reasonable, and they'll probably do it.

  • corruption (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lord Ender (156273) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:11PM (#27092257) Homepage

    I almost don't want to know. "Kickback" corruption spending is practiced by basically everyone in congress. Whenever an important bill comes up, everybody says they will vote against it unless there is language included to fund some boondoggle project from their major campaign contributors back home. So they all compromise and agree to add these little corruption amendments, then vote yes. They don't care about the main topic of the bill or their constituents. They just want their kickbacks.

    If we have accountability, we will have a clear picture of a system which is rotten to the core. What help would it be to find a 100% corruption rate?

    • by XanC (644172)

      The number would be 99.8%. Dr Paul does not ever vote for those bills.

    • Where is "+1 The Sad Truth" when you need it? Legislation requiring future bills to be "about one thing" or some sort of legislation allowing us to see exactly who put what in there when has been overdue a long time. (Yes, that sentence is a train wreck. It's early.)
  • Use git (Score:3, Funny)

    by Ingolfke (515826) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:22PM (#27092377) Journal

    They should use git.

  • "...the first tangible move toward making federal legislative data available to the public in bulk, so third parties can mash it up and redistribute it in innovative and accessible ways." Meaning the MFers will start *charging* us for crap we should be getting for free. And for those who say "Naw, they wouldn't... wanna bet?
  • the first tangible move toward making federal legislative data available to the public in bulk

    And then isn't the reverse true? Won't it make it easier to collect a lot more information about who is pulling what data? I'm not saying it's happened in the past [aaup.org] (I don't know if that suit ever went anywhere) but it is certainly possible.
  • All legislation should be written and updated in a CVS so that changes can be tracked easily, saving time & money, and also tracking who made what changes.
  • This is a fantastic idea! It would resolve a great deal of transparency problems with how our government works... yes, you can pour through Thomas, but Thomas is only a barely usable system, and its versioning capabilities definitely don't give the kind of information that would actually be useful to people trying to figure out who put line X in bill Y. If such an API existed (and was made truly useful in the ways being spoken of with versioning and robust searching), I would consider that a great victory
  • int totalCongressionalIQ = congressAPI.Stats.TotalIQ; Likely error: Cannot convert null to int because it is a non-nullable type.
  • Ever since I was introduced to and began using the open source source control system Subversion [wikipedia.org], I have thought about how a source control server(s) for legislative bills would be one of the best ways to allow the public to stay informed about Congressional activities and, perhaps more importantly, to easily track changes in various pieces of legislation as they work their ways through Congress. So if the administration is serious about using open source AND they want to increase transparency in the legisla
  • XML (Score:3, Interesting)

    by HighOrbit (631451) on Friday March 06, 2009 @01:38PM (#27093401)
    Don't reinvent the wheel, just use existing standards. US Code (law), Code of Fedreal Regulations, legislative bills are all already highly structured documents. And what commonly used data format is widely used for structured documents?

    [drumroll]

    XML. The answer here is define to several XML schemas (schemata) to capture the structure of these documents and use existing standards and technology (i.e web services over http) to distribute. None of that is rocket science or would required years of development effort, but may required years of exectuion. Its not hard; its tedious. The tedious part will be converting all the old docs over to XML.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    As much as I like the idea of tracking the legislation progress, and getting legislation and L.O.C. data published to the public uniformly or standardized, WHAT THE HELL IS IT DOING ON AN OMNIBUS APPROPRIATIONS BILL????

    These should be 2 separate pieces of legislation. If this gets tagged to the Appropriations bill, FROM THIS POINT FORWARD, it now has to be amended through appropriations, which is tantamount to battling for the last cookie in a kitchen full of sugar junkies.

    THIS DOES NOT BELONG on an omnibus

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Didn't Congress already address part of this with xml.house.gov? Although, the schema they designed use the default namespace, yuck.

  • There should be some flag in the data that limits what clients are allowed to access it. Then you can implement, "This can't be forwarded to the press," or "this can't be imported into maplight.org" and other useful things. And at least the client software would then require some kind of licensing, could not be Free, and wouldn't have any sort of unapproved forks that contain unapproved features.
  • I was recently looking for an API with this kind of data and found that votesmart.org has a pretty good one that offers information on federal, state, and local government representives, legislation, votes, and more. http://votesmart.org/services_api.php [votesmart.org]

    Also, the Sunlight Foundation has an API with congressional data, and they are currently holding a contest for creation of any kind of application that would help improve accountability, transparency, and interaction in government. The app has to be release

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