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Recent Steps Toward Improved Access to Federal Legislation
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Posted On September 14, 2021
During recent virtual meetings, representatives of several government entities showed how they had used the time during the pandemic to increase the public’s access to legislative information. The real takeaway from each online meeting is the degree to which these entities collaborate on projects. The Library of Congress (LC), the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, and the Office of the Secretary of the Senate are working to give the public access to legislation and support material more quickly than in the past, along with more options for searching.

The Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives responded to the pandemic by enabling the electronic submission of legislative documents (i.e., bills, resolutions, and committee reports). When the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced that representatives could vote remotely by proxy, the Office of the Clerk devised a means for them to file letters to designate, change, and revoke the authority for remote proxy voting. These letters are available for viewing at clerk.house.gov/ProxyLetter.

Bulk Data Task Force Meeting

During a virtual Bulk Data Task Force meeting on July 14, 2021, a succession of individuals presented advances made during the past 12 months on various government websites and underlying databases associated with U.S. laws. The final report of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress recognized the value of the work of the Bulk Data Task Force, recommending to make it a permanent entity renamed the Congressional Data Task Force.

Kirsten Gullickson of the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives reviewed the progress made to compare legislation at different points in the legislative process. Comparing legislative texts is difficult, as there is no single, unified code for federal law. The Comparative Print Project team is creating a centralized database containing all of the sources of law in a machine-readable format. Natural-language processors recognize and interpret the instructions, retrieving and presenting current law to users. Strikeouts and inserts are delineated to illustrate bill-to-bill differences and track changes in the law. A demo of this tool begins here at the 20:40 mark.

The Office of the Clerk deployed a new site on which people can browse and search the Biographical Directory of the United States. For those accustomed to the old site, it is still available here. Also, under a House Rules change for this Congress, House of Representatives members can indicate their support for a Senate bill. Users will find that support in a link under “More about this bill” on Congress.gov. Additional changes made to Congress.gov—the authoritative repository of U.S. congressional data—include the following:

  1. Registered users on Congress.gov can now set up alerts for committee activity.
  2. Users with multiple saved searches on Congress.gov can opt to consolidate them into a single email message.
  3. Users can enter their address on Congress.gov to find contact information for their representative.
  4. Committee meeting materials are now available from 2001, with the video and hearing transcripts accessible via committee schedule (by calendar date).
  5. Users can access historical debates of Congress (from the 1920s to the present) previously available only in the bound Congressional Record.
  6. More than 33,000 bills and resolutions from the 6th to the 42nd Congress (1799–1873) were added.
  7. Law text from the Statutes-at-Large now goes back to the 82nd Congress (1951).
  8. An audit identified additional opportunities for making Congress.gov more accessible. While the team is working on several recommendations, the Listen to this Page option is now available for hearings.
  9. New and improved content is available each month on Congress.gov’s Enhancement Timeline webpage.

Lisa LaPlant, program manager at govinfo, pointed out recent release highlights on govinfo.gov, such as the following:

  1. Bill status XML bulk data is available for the 108th through the 112th Congress.
  2. More than 2,100 Statute Compilations are now available in USLM XML format, making the documents easier to use, read, and download. As a result, it is possible to automate updates of laws not officially included in the U.S. Code and show how any draft legislation would amend those laws.
  3. A govinfo Search Box can be embedded on any website.
  4. Additional citation search patterns for bills, laws, and congressional reports allow users to eliminate periods or spaces and still retrieve the items they seek (e.g., 116HR263).
  5. View Page Source shows metadata for congressional bills (including Dublin Core) in HTML.
  6. There is now the ability to download up to 1,000 search results in a machine-readable format.
  7. There are searchable feature articles and help pages.
  8. An RSS feed is available for enrolled bills.

Researchers will appreciate the yellow quotation mark icon at the top right of each public law Content Details page providing citation format options—Chicago, APA, MLA, etc.—for download to citation managers, such as Zotero. Soon to be released will be the Digitized Congressional Serial Set dating back to the 15th Congress (1817).

Matt Landgraf, lead program planner at GPO, explained how enrolled bills and public laws are composed using XPub. This XML-based composition engine replaces the legacy MicroComp system that delivered PDFs of bills, public laws, and statutes to users for the past 30-plus years. The goal is to move GPO to a fully digital workflow, producing PDF files and digital products that are Section 508-compliant. This modular, digital-first suite of XML applications will allow users to create, mark up, correct, approve, and publish via multiple channels. XPub’s content-centered model integrates with commercial authoring and editing tools. Using XPub, GPO can replace the plain ASCII text file for bills with a more modern display that is easier to read on a screen. Now, metadata is included in HTML tags for reuse by data providers. The responsive HTML file shows the deleted text as strikethrough and makes it simpler to identify inserted language. Examples of files are available here.

Arin Shapiro, webmaster and director of web technology for the Office of the Secretary of the Senate, highlighted recent updates that simplify the Senate.gov website. The site now directs users seeking contacts to a data table, features more efficient search functionality, and provides updated URLs for individual roll call votes.

Billmap

During the July Bulk Data Task Force meeting, Demand Progress’ Daniel Schuman announced an early September launch for Billmap. For those accustomed to using GovTrack.us to get updates about bills making their way through Congress, the new tool puts federal legislation in context. Users enter a bill number, and Billmap provides links to related bills in the same Congress, plus companion or antecedent bills. Committees of jurisdiction and sponsors are also available. There is a searchable calendar for House and Senate hearings and bill markup for those who want to follow future committee meeting work. This next-gen legislative worksite displays the information in a way that supports researcher workflows. For more about Billmap as a solution for finding similar bills in Congress, consult posts by Schuman and Ari Hershowitz.

Congress.gov Public Forum

On Sept. 2, 2021, the LC hosted its second virtual public forum focused on public access to legislative information through Congress.gov. Based on suggestions made during last year’s “listening session” (Sept. 10, 2020), LC staffers set goals for tackling the information that’s most often requested, expanding the dataset by making new documents available in digital form, improving the online user experience, and adding features to enable more research and analysis. Daniel Schuman summarizes the 2020 forum here.

This year’s event featured an update on improvements to Congress.gov and the LC’s role in providing access to legislative information. Additionally, it offered Congress.gov users an opportunity to provide feedback and describe how they navigate the site. The forum covered much of the same ground regarding Congress.gov as did the Bulk Data Task Force meeting earlier in the summer. However, it was disappointing to hear a “nonresponse” concerning plans for expanding access to the digital archive of CRS Reports (CRSX). Stay tuned.

Bonus

Here’s a shoutout to the Legal Research Institute at the Law Library of Congress for the virtual events held throughout the pandemic. Its recorded webinars are a great way to learn more about how to conduct legal research and access often-overlooked documents related to a bill as it makes its way through Congress to become law. If you are interested in learning more, register for upcoming U.S. Law or Foreign and Comparative Law webinars.


Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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