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House Bill Batches to Be Made Available Free to Public

Two years after promising to make the Republican-led Congress the most transparent in history, House GOP leadership is adding a notch to its belt.

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., jointly announced Thursday that the Government Printing Office will now allow the public to access all information data sets related to House legislation.

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.

Transparency advocates on and off Capitol Hill have been pushing for changes to how information is made available through government websites. Granting bulk access, they argue, is equivalent to providing users access to an encyclopedia rather than a single entry.

Currently, a user has to click through dozens, if not hundreds, of individual pages in order to gather and sort information on specific topics for the purposes of analysis and comparison. Making certain information available in just a few clicks and a single download simplifies the effort, proponents say, and encourages engagement with the legislative process.

“Making legislative data easier for third parties, developers, and anyone interested in how Congress is tackling current challenges is a priority for House leaders,” Boehner and Cantor said in their joint statement.

People looking to view the bulk data can find it on the websites for both the House clerk and the GPO.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., praised the decision to allow the bulk data access, although he focused it on the GPO and House clerk, not Republican leaders.

“I commend GPO and the House Clerk for their actions, and hope that other legislative branch entities like the Library of Congress and the Senate will follow suit by including additional legislative information that is already publicly available, yet not accessible, on Thomas.gov.,” Hoyer said in a release.

The GOP leaders did not say how making this information free to the public compares with for-profit database services that provide similar data sets of government information for a fee. CQ Roll Call is one of those companies.

For some lawmakers and interest groups, the announcement is both welcome and perhaps surprising. While heartened by House Republicans’ commitment to offering legislative information in bulk to the public, they had been angered by a House Appropriations Committee decision to halt efforts in their tracks.

The committee report accompanying the fiscal 2013 Legislative Branch appropriations bill, which the House passed in June, stipulated that a special task force be convened to examine the best options for offering bulk data online before forging ahead.

There was particular concern about which format would be best suited for allowing users to download data in bulk. The most popular choice has been the XML format, which is how bills were already formatted online and is generally considered the easiest format for making the transition to bulk data access.

But some lawmakers and legislative branch agencies questioned whether it would be the most cost-effective or whether it would protect official government documents from manipulation by outside groups.

“What would be the impact of bulk downloads of legislative data in XML on the timeliness and authoritativeness of congressional information?” the committee report said. “What would be the estimated timeline for the development of a system of authentication for bulk data downloads of legislation information in XML? What are the projected budgetary impacts ... [and] potential requirements for Congress to confirm or invalidate third party analyses? Are there other data models ... that can enhance congressional openness or transparency?”

For the people who wanted immediate action on bulk data access, the formation of a task force to study the issue meant indefinite delay or even death for the issue as it faded from memory.

“A tremendous blow to prospects for improving public access to legislative information” is how the Sunlight Foundation characterized committee report language at the time.

“I oppose the committee report language and support making all XML legislative information available online in bulk as soon as possible,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., co-chairman of the Congressional Transparency Caucus, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “This would improve transparency and accountability by providing citizens and watchdog groups the ability to analyze data in ways not currently possible.”

This is not likely to be the last expansion of congressional data to be made available in XML format in the 113th Congress. Earlier this week, the House Clerk announced that full sessions of House floor summaries would be made available for bulk download, too.

And Congress.gov, the Library of Congress’ legislative information repository that will soon replace Thomas, is being configured to one day support bulk data access, should the order be handed down, LOC Web Services Chief Jim Karamanis told CQ Roll Call in September.

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