The legislative information website Thomas, run by the Library of Congress, was revolutionary when it launched in 1995. Today, not so much.
Now, the Library of Congress is using the technological advances of the past 17 years to build a new site that, if all goes as planned, will replace its predecessor within a year.
Librarian of Congress James Billington presided over the official launch of the new website, Congress.gov, on Wednesday afternoon.
Flanked by lawmakers, legislative branch agency partners and support staff, Billington said the website is the latest initiative in expanding the Web presence and digital platform of the LOC, an institution that struggles to maintain relevance in a digital age.
"The new, more robust platform reaffirms for the 21st century Congress' vision of a vital legislative information resource for all Americans," Billington said.
Thomas has limited search and display functions, a result of the basic Web development tools available at the time the site was built. Its infrastructure is so old it would have been impossible to redesign the existing site in a meaningful way.
Instead, the LOC designed and built a separate site that could one day take Thomas' mantle and has the capability to be adapted in the future. Until all the kinks have been worked out on Congress.gov, the two sites will coexist online.
Notable changes on Congress.gov include a streamlined system for users to search for bills by number or keyword across legislative sessions since the 107th Congress, which convened in 2001. (Currently Thomas forces users to identify the Congress in which the bill was introduced.) The ability to search earlier years will be added in the months ahead.
Among the new features are a navigation system that lets users narrow or expand searches to refine results, links to basic bio pages for Members of Congress and educational tools, such as short videos, to help people understand the legislative process.
Easier access to information, advocates of the new website say, will help Congress meet its obligation to be open with its public business. Transparency watchdogs, however, still worry about whether Congress.gov will fully deliver.
While acknowledging its "sleeker, more intuitive and user-friendly" design, Daniel Schuman, policy counsel and director of the Sunlight Foundation's Advisory Committee on Transparency, said there's still "something missing: public comment on the design process and computer-friendly bulk access to the underlying data."
"Bulk access" refers to the ability to export or download data that can be sorted or analyzed to reveal trends and patterns in Congressional actions.
Many lawmakers support making the LOC's legislative information available in database form, but the initiative has stalled because of lingering concerns about cost and the need to protect government documents from manipulation by outside groups.
Jim Karamanis, chief of web services at the LOC, told Roll Call that Congress has the authority to tell the LOC to make a legislative database available to the public. Should that time come, the new Congress.gov is well-equipped to support that, he said.
As for input from the public, Karamanis explained that Congress.gov will be in "beta" status for at least a year, meaning the content and design of the site will continue to evolve as user feedback streams in.