On September 10, 2020, the Library of Congress held a Virtual Public Forum on the Library’s role in providing access to legislative information. The forum was held at the direction of the House Committee on Appropriations pursuant to its report accompanying the FY 2020 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. Per the legislative language, there will be another forum scheduled prior to October 2021. There was widespread interest in the topic: according to the Library, several hundred people registered for the event.
Prior to the forum, the Congressional Data Coalition and others sent a report containing more than two dozen recommendations concerning the Library of Congress’ legislative information services. They fell into five conceptual groupings: (1) Publish Information As Data; (2) Put the Legislative Process in Context; (3) Integrate Information from Multiple Sources; (4) Publish Archival Information; (5) Collaborate with the Public.
The following provides a recap of the three-hour proceedings. The Library indicated it will post video snippets of the conversation.
Library of Congress Director of Digital Strategy Kate Zwaard moderated the forum. She began with a few remarks and introduced Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden. Dr. Hayden emphasized the event would focus on Congress.gov and wanted participants to be “brutally honest” about things they would like to see Congress.gov to do in the future.
Robert Brammer, Chief of the Office of External Relations of the Law Library of Congress, provided a helpful recap of the recent enhancements made to Congress.gov, including committee meeting hearing transcripts, Senate communication search forms, website footer links, improved display for CBO cost estimates, and more.
Andrew Weber, product owner of Congress.gov who works for the Office of the Chief Information Officer of the Library of Congress, addressed current projects and immediate enhancement priorities for Congress.gov, starting with incorporating committee hearing transcripts on Congress.gov to be matched with the committee hearing schedule item. A long term goal is integrating statutes at large into several phases adding them to existing bill detail pages to make them searchable and browsable; then collecting the remaining statutes at large from GovInfo. They also plan to work on including a key word and context into the search function for the Help Center.
Throughout the conversation there were questions and answers. We’ve listed a subset at the bottom.
Data Modernization Panel and Lightning Talks
The Library then held an extensive panel with their data partners to discuss the data modernization occurring across Capitol Hill and the importance of data standards. This was similar in content to the quarterly public meetings of the Bulk Data Task Force.
Lisa LaPlant, Information Technology Specialist at GPO, and Matt Landgraf, Lead Program Planner at GPO, spoke first. Landgraft touched on the updates around XPub, the initiative formally known as composition replacement. He then mentioned that GPO is working on a prototype of reports that includes drafting in Microsoft Word and then converting the files to USLM and PDF. Lisa LaPlant was proud to highlight the work around USLM, specifically the efforts to transform legacy files from previous Congresses into USLM. Their team has begun working on converting files to XML dating back to the 113th Congress, and plans to continue to the same work all the way back to the 108th Congress. She also briefly mentioned working with the House’s Comparative Print Project to allow users to show how a prospective legislation and amendments change the current law in real-time.
Kirsten Gullickson, senior systems analyst with the House Office of the Clerk, discussed the Clerk’s office’s efforts on LIMS — the Legislative Information Management System — which feeds data to Congress.gov. Gullickson also highlighted the importance and use of standard identifiers for floor and committee proceedings to better maintain information. Secretary of the Senate Arin Shapiro discussed plans to add a separate data feed to denote when Senate hearings are cancelled or postponed, so that it can be properly reflected in Congress.gov’s calendar, as well as ways to incorporate combined committee calendars on Congress.gov.
(During the Q&A period, Gullickson also said that additional efforts likely will be necessary concerning how information about committee documents are posted. The process is largely manual and there may be value in adding automation to strengthen consistency).
There was also a round of lightning talks, where House Historian Erin Hromada announced the launch of Bioguide’s new website next month, Jeanne Dennis of CRS talked about the newest updates for Constitution Annotated, and Jennifer Gonzalex of the Law Library discussed various updates of historical text dating back to 1789 and the 5-year effort to digitize and make available the U.S. Serial Set.
We note that no speaker included in their presentation a discussion around the the addition of CRS reports to the Congress.gov website, which is a major recent improvement.
Q & A
The question and answer period allowed participants to ask questions to speakers and panelists directly. Kate Zwaard moderated the Q&A, and most questions were asked in the allotted time.
We did not capture every question and answer, but below we highlight some of the more interesting questions. We also created a spreadsheet that include the questions below.
Among the things that came out of the conversation, it was clear that there are areas where Congress must act. The Library of Congress made it clear it would not act to improve public access to CRS reports (by improving how the reports are published or releasing the archival reports) or to make available an API to Congress.gov data without express and explicit direction from Congress.
We have worked to summarize the gist of the Q&A, but this is not a verbatim transcript. We have reorganized the items conceptually. Our comments are inside brackets.
Q: Will there ever be live transcripts of hearings?
A: We are using the official transcripts and are working to incorporate live video. [The official transcripts can take weeks, months, or years to produce. The House videos available on YouTube do generate automated transcripts, but those are not incorporated into Congress.gov. There are no automatic transcripts available from official sources for the Senate.]
Q: What is the process to obtain official transcripts of hearings and connect them to the Congress.gov info page?
A: Currently, we often have to nudge the committees to make sure the official transcripts become available.
Q: Not all House committee videos are showing up on Congress.gov, a consequence of them not being properly tagged when created. Are there efforts to build an automated tagging system?
A: It’d be great to build tools that automatically tag these videos. Right now it’s being done by hand.
Q: Will you put up older House videos?
A: Challenges in doing this arise from House rules and previous instances of Chair autonomy. The videos were not seen as official as they are now. Will take significant effort to move this forward.
Q: What is necessary to get video of current and historical Senate committee proceedings available to Congress.gov in such a way that it could be automatically incorporated into the info presented on Congress.gov? The House for its gaps as well?
A: For the House, we are embedding YouTube content. We are still working with the Senate to identify a method for posting their video content.
Q: Why are Senate committee videos unavailable on Congress.gov?
A: We are working with them to try to find a way to make this happen. [It was unclear from the presentation, but it sounded like the conversation might be at the stage of gauging whether anyone in the Senate might be interested in doing so.]
Q: Would you publish CRS Reports as HTML? They are already available as HTML on internal websites.
A: It’s useful to hear from stakeholders on this. We will consider this feedback. [This was addressed elsewhere, and it appears that the answer is that it would require direction from Congress to make this happen.]
[A question was also asked about CRS archival reports, but the Library did not provide a response.]
Executive branch information
Q: Will the Library publish Executive branch information on Congress.gov?
A: Sometimes, but only if it is related to Congress.
Q: Will the Library of Congress do more to collaborate with the public on legislative information services, such as transcribing records or sharing code?
A: There will be at least one more of these meetings. [Optimism was expressed about other ways of collaborating but nothing concrete.]
Q: Will you consider collaboration with the public on technology and use of open source?
A: The Library is limited by funding and bandwidth, and outside help could be useful. Open to further conversations, but have to consider security concerns.
Identifying related legislation + amendment tracking
Q: When bills that are included in other bills become law, there’s no indication on the original bill that it has (in effect) been enacted. Is there a way Congress.gov can show this?
A: There is a great opportunity to expedite this process. But we take direction from Congress on whether to do this.
Q: Will it become possible to see related bills for historical bills? In other words, to identify when there’s a prior version of a current bill from a prior Congress?
A: We will keep investigating to see whether it’s worth doing.
Q: Are there ways to better identify bills that have been changed through an amendment between Houses? (started as one bill and passed as something else)
A: We are working on improving House amendment data. We hope to get text or metadata for amendments and linking those to committee reports or prints.
Information as data
Q: Will the Library build an API for data it has on Congress.gov?
A: Only if Congress directs us to do so.
Q: Can the Library make a dashboard that indicates when bills are introduced even if they’re not yet on Congress.gov?
A: There’s no way to do this. [I think the question was misunderstood. Sometimes the LC will create a bill stub page, which only has the name of the bill but not its contents. This is what the questioner was asking about, particularly as it relates to a lag of when information becomes available via the House or Senate vs. when it goes up on Congress.gov.]
Q: Will archived material, such as that available on ProQuest, become available from the Library?
A: Yes, at some point, at least for certain records like Statutes at Large and the Serial set.
Q: Will you crawl congressional social media and archive it?
A: We will have to circle back on this question.
Q: Would the Library include floor information in its calendar?
A: This may be challenging, but it is a good idea. We have links, but haven’t incorporated the data otherwise.
Q: What is CRS’s process of producing bill summaries?
A: Will look at enhancing the “about” page to explain how this is done.
We thank the Library of Congress and their data partners for holding this forum — especially in light of the logistical challenges that have arisen during a pandemic. The participants were extraordinarily generous with their time. While not every aspect of the Library was represented, many teams were present.
We thank the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee for helping bring this forum to life. We look forward to continuing to work with the Library and Legislative Branch Subcommittee to further modernization efforts of the Library’s digital information services.
Updated: Video from the 2020 forum is available online here.
— Written by Daniel Schuman and Taylor J. Swift