Legislation Proposes Tuneup for THOMAS Site

Posted May 21, 2004 at 2:04pm

After providing legislative information services to the general public for nearly a decade, the Library of Congress’ online public-access legislative information service, THOMAS, has begun to show its age and badly needs to be improved, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) said in a recent floor statement.

In an effort to bring THOMAS up to par with Congress’ in-house Legislative Information System, Corzine submitted a resolution calling on the Library to update its aging system and make it easier to use for the general public. Corzine hopes to add the resolution, which is currently before the Senate Rules Committee, as an amendment to the upcoming legislative branch appropriations bill.

“Although there have been some improvements over time, the Library has been unable to devote the resources necessary to keep THOMAS up to the level the public expects for today’s Web sites,” Corzine said in a May 13 floor statement.

“This resolution will tell the Library of Congress that the Senate is paying attention, and that we will insist on that improvement.”

According to Darius Goore, Corzine’s press secretary, staffers in the Senator’s office began to notice that improvements were needed to THOMAS when they were trying to help constituents who would call seeking information on Congressional bills and legislation.

“When we actually looked at THOMAS during that process of referring them we saw things that could be done better, especially when comparing it to LIS.”

LIS was created in the 1997 legislative branch appropriations conference report and is maintained by the Congressional Research Service. Although THOMAS and LIS share 90 percent of their components and resources, LIS offers a number of features not available on THOMAS. For example, LIS users are able to search across multiple Congresses to find information about bills, while THOMAS users can search only by individual Congresses.

Staffers from Corzine’s office met with Library staff in mid-April to begin discussing ways to improve the THOMAS system.

“The Library of Congress has requested funding for FY2005 for many of its information technology needs, but we are now only in the middle of the appropriations cycle,” Audrey Fischer, a Library of Congress spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Since we don’t know about FY2005 funding levels yet, we can’t really speak to the issue of what the scope of computer system upgrades might be.”

“At the time of the creation of THOMAS it was a leading edge system to bring legislative information to the public and Congressional staffers,” Reynold Schweickhardt, the chief information officer of the Government Printing Office who provided the primary direction of THOMAS for the Library of Congress from 1995 to 2003, said in an e-mail.

And while Schweickhardt pointed out that the Congressional Research Service operates a focus group and frequently benchmarks new features and improvements for in-house users, “Improvements and incremental development [for THOMAS] continue to occur each year in accordance with a work plan approved by House Administration and Senate rules.”

But Corzine, and his six other Senate co-sponsors think it’s time to escalate that level of improvement.

“Obviously, the American people have the right to see all the public documents of Congress. And, if we are to be true to our nation’s democratic values, this information should be as easy to find as possible,” Corzine said. “Although THOMAS was a good start, it badly needs to be improved.