Last week internal and external Congressional stakeholders came together for the seventh annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. We’ve recapped them all.
The bipartisan conference was incredibly well run, and did a fantastic job convening internal and external congressional groups to promote engaging and well-executed events (detailed in the image below). You can check out the event descriptions and panelist bios here, and watch the full conference here. (We note parenthetically that this is the first time the conference has been held under Democratic control of the House, which illustrates how these issues have become institutional matters and not partisan ones.)
This amazing conference, which welcomes engagement from all quarters, brings together experts from across the legislative branch to discuss ways to improve how Congress works, focusing primarily on legislative branch technology and transparency.
The conference has always been bipartisan/non-partisan. The conference provided thought provoking and constructive conversations, and the bicameral team that put it together deserve kudos for their hard work. We must particularly applaud the House Administration Committee, which served as host and convenor, and the House Clerk’s office, which provided phenomenal support to the event.
There was strong turn out from the community, including House Admin Chair Zoe Lofgren, Ranking Member Rodney Davis, ‘Fix Congress’ Committee Chair Derek Kilmer, Vice Chair Tom Graves, and House Clerk Cheryl Johnson. In attendance were liaisons from just about all the support offices and agencies as well as the relevant committees of jurisdiction. The improvements that will make the First Branch first-rate don’t happen without the internal stakeholders.
Posey Print Project
The Clerk’s office held a demo of ‘track changes’ for legislation (aka the Posey rule project). This software is a BIG deal: it reads amendatory language in legislation and shows how it would change the underlying law — in real time. There’s more to do, but wow! Color us impressed. You can watch the demo yourself here; more details can be found below in the demo section of this article.
Historic Statutes At Large In USLM Format
GPO is piloting a project to see how what would be involved to convert pre-2003 Statutes at Large into USLM. The Statutes at Large are all the laws enacted by Congress; if they are available as structured data, it becomes possible to use technology to instantaneously show how every bill has amended every other bill.
GPO will first convert a test group of digitized Statutes at Large into USLM XML and then evaluate the results. The office says it will be a long term project that goes beyond FY 2020. The assessment was originally requested in the FY 19 Leg. Branch Appropriations Bill Report.
Staffer Issue Directory
Conference attendees were offered a rare look at DemCom — DemCom being the internal House Dems-only tool that helps coordinate information and messaging — for a demo of a new tool that provides a directory of congressional staff that you can sort by policy area. This means (House Democratic) congressional staff can find the staffer (or staffers) who care about their issue and email them directly; no longer do they need to get an intern to call 50 offices to build a list of the person working on your issue. Rep. Davis’s CoS Lisa Sherman guesstimated that half the calls coming into offices are from outside services gathering this information.
Unfortunately, the underlying data had to be purchased from a private vendor. Presenter Steve Dwyer from Majority Leader Hoyer’s office expressed the hope that perhaps the House could update its systems to generate this data internally for all staff. The House does publish a well-designed staff directory, but it unfortunately does not contain the issue areas on which staff work.
The House Clerk’s New Website
The House Clerk’s new website, ClerkPreview.House.Gov is up in Beta version. The site consumes an API from XML sources to share information on floor activity, committee schedules, disclosure info, and more. The website, which is a significant improvement over its predecessor, has been online for a while now, but what’s notable is the Clerk hopes to make the API publicly available in the future.
CRS Report Publication
The Library of Congress/ CRS is publishing many CRS reports on its new website. We asked whether CRS was going to publish the underlying data behind its reports — in other words, the reports as HTML and not just PDF — and also whether it has any plans to post historical reports on its site. In a written response, the office said they believe they’ve fulfilled the statutory requirement to publish and don’t have plans to publish the reports as data. As of Friday there were 7,301 on crsreports.congress.gov and 15,145 on EveryCRSReport.com and we didn’t get an answer on whether CRS will publish any of its historical reports currently unavailable on CRS’s internal website but available for a fee from third-party data providers.
Franking Commission Has Gone Digital
The House Admin Committee/Franking Commission announced it would soon begin publishing all franked mail online. No longer do you have to go to the LRC and pay $0.10 a page to see what a member is sending to constituents.
GPO Shared A “Release Roadmap”
GPO plans to release structured data resources on the Complete US Code (by 2019), Congressional Bills, Public Laws, Statutes at Large for the 117th Congress, historic House and Senate documents, as well as the House and Senate and Calendars for 2020 via XPub. If you’re not familiar, XPub is the update to micorocomp (a tool for writing, printing, and publishing documents) that GPO uses for XML-based publishing. This is a significant change in their publication processes, and while seemingly esoteric, it means the underlying information will be much more flexible and usable.
Dome Watch Updates
Dome Watch — a tool of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office that provides tons of useful information about what’s happening on the floor — now pulls floor vote data directly from the Clerk, so it’s even faster than what you see on TV. The Clerk’s data feed is available to Republicans, too.
Bioguide.Congress.gov, the site that aggregates biographical information on all Members of Congress (past and present), will be available as data by the end of 2019. Member profiles are marked with unique IDs that help with correct tracking.
The elevator pitch format for sharing new tools with conference attendees was a hit. Scroll down for details.
Couldn’t make it to the conference? Check out our summary of all of the panels below.
Presentation from Dr. Anne Washington
Data governance and digital government expert Dr. Anne Washington gave a phenomenal talk on the value of legislative transparency and how it differs from governmental transparency in other contexts. The short version is that transparency allows for understanding the past, and that context for legislating and oversight is what allows Congress to improve its function over time.
Bulk Data Task Force Panel
The panel was so packed with helpful information that we wrote a lengthy article about it.
Consensus Calendar Session
The House created the consensus calendar at the start of the 116th Congress as part of its rules package (House Rule XV Clause 7) as an additional way for members to move bipartisan legislation to the floor.
The rule requires that the Speaker consider at least one bill from the Consensus Calendar each week. For a bill to get on the Consensus Calendar, it must have 290 co-sponsors for 25+ legislative days. Because this new process can be confusing for some, there was a helpful explanation from the House Parliamentarian on how it works. Currently 9 bills are up for consideration under the calendar.
Transparency Meets Security Panel
The panel, moderated by Eric Mill from the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, included Addie Adeniji from the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer (HIR), Judith Conklin from the Library of Congress, Cameron Dixon from the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency at DHS, and Arin Shapiro from the Office of the Secretary of the Senate.
Discussion about issues, including the use of open source in government, underscored that efforts to modernize congress and meet security requirements can incorporate transparency at the same time.
The elevator-pitch & demo format worked really well for hearing about resources that various organizations are building; highlights include:
• Bill to Text helps to facilitate collaboration on drafting legislation by converting PDFs of pre-introduced legislation (i.e., drafts) into docx formats that can be commented on and edited in Google Docs and Word. The tool doesn’t keep your underlying data or copies of the bills you’ve uploaded.
• The forthcoming Franking Commission site. Soon you’ll be able to save yourself a trip to the House basement or the 10 cents per printed page to see what members are sending to their districts.
• The Congress.gov Chrome extension: whenever your own your browser, just highlight a bill citation and it will link to that bill in the current Congress.
• Then there’s USLaw.link. With this incredible tool, you can look up any law enacted by Congress. Ever. Just put in a legal citation and the tool connects you to a source that has the text of the statute or law.
• PolicyMaking Simulations from Voice of the People is a survey tool that put the respondents in the shoes of a policymaker by (1) briefing them, (2) asking them to evaluate arguments, and (3) make recommendations.
• Markup.Law which facilitates coordination on legislation using microsoft teams.
Vision of the Future Panel
The standout ideas include:
• Automated co-sponsorship and e-signature tools: If a Member wants to find co-sponsors for a bill, someone in their office, usually an intern or junior staffer, has to go around door to door for manual signatures from interested Members’ offices. On top of being time consuming and inefficient, the process poses a quality-control risk as names can be misread because of bad handwriting. Rep. Susan Davis’s Chief of Staff, Lisa Sherman, discussed the problem and her boss’s efforts to eliminate these pitfalls.
• Reviving OpenGov Foundation’s Madison, a collaborative drafting tool that allows anyone to provide comments or ideas on legislation. Pop Vox’s Marci Harris announced the tool could be making a comeback as part of PopVox’s LegiDash, a free communications and legislative dashboard to help streamline communications between Congressional offices and the American people.
• NYU’s Beth Noveck and Georgetown’s Lorelei Kelly emphasized making use of citizen expertise. You can learn more about the idea at Congress.Crowd.Law and see other countries that are doing this well at Catalog.Crowd.Law.
As we detailed at the top, conference attendees got to see demos of the Posey Print bill comparison tool, the new improved DomeWatch.US, and DemCom, the internal House Democratic communications platform.
— Written by Amelia Strauss and Daniel Schuman