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Congress Mulls API For Congressional Data 121

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.

  • 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".

  • Hmmph. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SatanicPuppy ( 611928 ) * <> 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.

  • 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 MikeRT ( 947531 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:00PM (#27092111)
    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: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.
  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:06PM (#27092185) Journal

    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?

  • 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?

  • Re:Hmmph. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mbone ( 558574 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:19PM (#27092341)

    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.

  • 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.

  • Re:Hmmph. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by homer_ca ( 144738 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @01:12PM (#27093075)

    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.

  • Re:Law for geeks (Score:3, Insightful)

    by b4dc0d3r ( 1268512 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @01:42PM (#27093471)

    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 Whatshisname. House version of new bill proposal. (contents copied verbatim from different lobbyist e-mail request, but this won't be specified anywhere)
    Rev2: House Committee chair. Updates from committee meeting. (massive replacement of the text, no names specified)
    Rev3: House Committee chair. Deleted bill, updates moved to Senate version.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 06, 2009 @01:50PM (#27093577)

    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 appropriations bill. PERIOD!

"The pyramid is opening!" "Which one?" "The one with the ever-widening hole in it!" -- The Firesign Theatre