Lawmakers favor outside access to legislative data

The legislative process could become a lot more exciting if lawmakers get their way in freeing the data inside the Library of Congress' legislative Internet database so that independent Web sites can repackage the information.

In November, the House Administration Committee asked the library to explore solutions for supplying the public with raw legislative information from the database, dubbed THOMAS, committee spokesman Kyle Anderson said on Wednesday.

"The library is looking into the resources that would be required to make this data available," spokesman Guy Lamolinara confirmed. A report to the committee is expected during the first part of the calendar year.

"By providing an open legislative database to the public," sites could "better tap into the knowledge of the American people," said Democratic Rep. Mike Honda of California, who along with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has made the same request of the library.

Web sites like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia that anyone can modify, as well as the Linux computer-operating system, whose underlying code can be read and altered, demonstrate the benefits of open systems, Honda added.

At a recent hearing, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., also recommended that the library present Senate votes in a structured format so citizens can have a better look at the records of their elected officials.

Rob Pierson, Honda's online communications director and president of the House System Administrators Association, said that currently, Honda's site must rely on links to show visitors his most recent votes and sponsored bills.

THOMAS' data would let his office display the information on Honda's own site and allow bloggers to embed automatic notifications of updates, known as "trackbacks," to bills sponsored by Honda, Pierson said. Access to the raw data "would encourage an explosion of innovative Web sites."

One beneficiary of the proposal may be linguistics graduate student Joshua Tauberer, who has already launched GovTrack.us, a noncommercial Web site that compiles the status of legislation and voting records from THOMAS.

If the data were made available as a bulk download or delivered in slices, it would fill some of the gaps on GovTrack, Tauberer said. Currently, the site cannot reliably obtain a daily list of the bills that have been updated, and some bills show up on GovTrack with outdated information.

The data is important because no single view into the workings of Congress is best for everyone, he added. "Reporters, kids and citizens at large want to see Congress from different angles and want to see different connections exposed between votes, legislation, money, earmarks, etc."

But the change likely would affect paid-subscription sites that charge for legislative updates. Their "business model will need to evolve to compete with citizen technologists," Sunlight Foundation Program Director John Wonderlich said. Companies may need to add more substantial analysis in order to compete with free services, he added.

There also may be resistance from congressional administrators, who "are often wary of taking on new departmental responsibilities if they are not accompanied by statutory justification or appropriations," Wonderlich said.

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