Congress is set to approve HR 5882, a bill that would essentially block bulk access to legislative information. You might call it “You Can Ask, But We Won’t Tell,” because this bill would make it more difficult for Congress to release information about itself online and would undermine citizen-created sites like GovTrack, OpenCongress and Washington Watch that make it easy for citizens to read and track bills and legislation. The question is this: Does information about legislation belong to Congress or to the American people? That question is at the heart of a fight over how Congress releases data about what it does.
What’s “bulk” information, anyway, and why do we want it?
Here’s an explanation from the Sunlight Foundation:
In the pre-YouTube, pre-iPhone, pre-Amazon days, Congress built a website—THOMAS—to let citizens follow legislation from home. THOMAS was revolutionary … in 1995. But the Internet continued to develop, becoming more sophisticated and interactive, allowing web developers to easily share the data behind their websites with others. It’s why we can book flights on Travelocity, check the weather on our phones, and follow legislation on OpenCongress and GovTrack.
Unlike Travelocity and the National Weather Service, Congress doesn’t share the data behind THOMAS with anyone. Instead, web developers must reverse-engineer the website to transform its pages into usable data, like assembling a puzzle from thousands of ragged pieces without a picture on the box as a guide. This slow, difficult, and time-consuming process isn’t perfect, but it’s responsible for how most Americans follow what’s happening in Congress.
The better approach is for Congress to publish the data behind THOMAS. Government regularly does this elsewhere, and “bulk data” is responsible for clever new uses of information developed by citizens, journalists, and even the government itself.
Why is HR 5882 happening?
The benign explanation is that Congress doesn’t understand technology, and therefore doesn’t appreciate the role of tech in providing public access to information. Another, more sinister reason behind an effort such as this would be that Congressional representatives and Senators just don’t want you to know what’s in the bills they’ve passed.
Specifically, what’s the problem with HR 5882?
Here are five reasons—courtesy of the Sunlight Foundation—to call, email or tweet your Congressperson and speak up on HR 5882.
- HR 5882 undermines a citizen’s right to make use of legislative information. The public should have unrestricted access to congressional information, and that includes making it available in bulk.
- HR 5882 would freeze any efforts to open up legislative information. It creates an unaccountable secret “task force” to study the issue. But without any deadline, it may never report back. This has happened before, and it will happen again.
- When Congress amends HR 5882, it should require bulk access to THOMAS information no later than 120 days after the enactment.
- Bulk access to legislative information is uncontroversial, inexpensive, and common practice across the government.
- The THOMAS website was created in a matter of months when the Speaker of the House decided it was a priority. While times have changed, giving legislative information to the American people is still a priority. It’s time to modernize THOMAS by giving the public bulk access now.
It’s time to push back to make sure we can access the government information that we pay for. You can use this link to find contact information for your Congressional representative. Or, use this link, from GovTrack, to write your rep a letter.