Data demo day highlights benefits of open, searchable legislative data
The Statutes at Large Modernization Act would codify the entire Statutes at Large as open dataWASHINGTON – Lawmakers and the Data Coalition, an open government advocacy group, held a Legislative Data Demo Day Wednesday to discuss details of the bi-partisan Statutes at Large Modernization Act (H.R. 4006), as well as some ways open and "successful" legislative data might be used.
For over two years, Congress has been publishing the U.S. Code, which organizes active laws by subject matter, as open data. It uses a standardized XML structure called the U.S. Legislative Model, or USLM, to publish, code and tag those laws so they can be software-readable.
But the U.S. Code isn't the only formal compilation of legislation on the block. H.R. 4006 would similarly codify the Statutes at Large, which lists legislation in sequential order, including legislation no longer in effect.
"The U.S. Code doesn't contain all the laws, just those that are general and permanent and recent. The Statutes at Large has all of them, including appropriations acts, transportation project authorizations, and earlier versions of repealed and amended laws," Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said at the event.
Brat co-sponsored the legislation along with Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), and the bill has gained endorsements from the Data Coalition, the Sunlight Foundation and other groups.
Brat stressed the importance of the legislation as a way to make actionable, useful legislative information more available in Congress.
"Accurate information is not necessarily in use up here in the political realm – as I've learned over the last year as a member of Congress – but we want to change that," he said. "We need it to make good decisions on behalf of the American people, and that's why Seth and I want easy access to all the laws Congress has passed – all laws, going all the way back to 1789."
After Brat spoke, a panel of stakeholders discussed the significance of having the Statutes at Large as open data, followed by several demos of potential use cases. Several speakers highlighted what could happen once researchers got their hands the codified legislation.
"What this does is, number one, it democratizes [the data], it makes it much easier to find the relevant statutes for people that may not have the legal or legislative training to know where to look, and it makes it possible to do cross-comparisons and analyses," explained Joel Gurin, the founder of the Center for Open Data Enterprise.
One common theme among the speakers was the ever-decreasing research capabilities of congressional offices – due to increasing workloads and diminished budgets. Several speakers noted that by making the Statutes at Large easily accessible, it would lower the time and resources necessary to perform legislative research.
Another possibility raised by some speakers was advancing the legislative process to take advantage of the codified legislation. For instance, David Zvenyach, the acquisition management director at the General Services Administration's 18F, explained that with codified legislation, compliance could someday be automated.
"We believe that by expressing laws and regulations as data, ultimately we'll be able to automate compliance," he said. "So, we'll be able to get rid of those layers and layers of lawyers and include lines of code that enable searchability, rapid dissemination and ultimately interpretation for laws and regulations."
One thing left out of H.R. 4006 is any specification for the language used when codifying the Statutes at Large. Instead, the bill is "language neutral," and it will be left to the National Archives and Records Administration to determine which language to use.
That's important because if a language besides USLM is used for the Statutes at Large, they won't be interoperable with the U.S. Code data. Hence, in its endorsement of the legislation, the Data Coalition noted, "as long as the Archives does its homework, it should select the USLM."
The bill is currently under consideration in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where it has been since mid-November, 2015. GovTrack.us gave the bill a 9 percent chance of getting past committee and a 2 percent chance of being enacted during this Congress.