Friday, January 20, 2012

Legislative Standards: U.S. House Conference

The U.S. House will hold a conference about transparency and legislative data on February 2, 2012 (with remote streaming?).  As Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation writes, "This is a big deal."  In this time of extreme partisanship and one-upmanship in politics, legislative data transparency is both important and that both sides can, in principle, agree on.

I've written before about the importance of consistent standards in legislation, the use of meaningful metadata, and the value of version control. Federal legislative data currently passes through at least five offices on the way to being codified.  Because of many historical quirks, the codified version (the "U.S. Code") is often not the actual law, though for convenience most people, even lawyers, pretend that it is.  Simplifying the content of the law, as President Obama and others have called for in tax law, becomes harder when the basic technical issues of changing the law are so arcane and complex.

The Feb. 2 conference, brings together six offices that prepare legislative data on its way from bill to code, and can spark the creation of a unified data standard to make creating and understanding the law more accessible.  In the next few posts, I will detail some suggestions of key changes that would advance these goals.  For example:

  1. Write in plain English
  2. Write changes to statutory sections as full replacements of previous sections. Use a consistent format to make changes (e.g. "Section 444 is amended to read as follows:"). 
  3. Commit to enacting positive law codification for all Titles. A positive law codification project for Title 26 should be considered as a non-partisan starting point for the effort to simplify tax law.
  4. Adopt a clean and simple XML data standard for Federal Legislation.
These are not original suggestions, nor are they comprehensive, but making these changes would provide the foundations for a far more transparent legislative framework.

4 comments:

  1. Check out http://xml.house.gov for the XML data standard for Federal legislation.

    The repository of Federal legislation in XML for 2011-2012 is at http://thomas.loc.gov/home/gpoxmlc112

    Just change the 112 to 111 in the URL for the 111th Congress, etc. It looks like all bills are now being published in XML.

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  2. Yes, good point. All but the larger bills (e.g. the Healthcare bill, H.R. 3200) have been published in XML in the last year or two. However, this XML is still different from the final (text, html or pdf) versions that end up in the U.S. Code. Among others, this conference brings together the House Office of Legislative Council (where I believe the XML you link to originates), and the Law Revision Council, responsible for the U.S. Code. I'm hopeful this means working toward an XML that is tailored for codification.

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  3. Thanks Ari.

    I'm just trying to be helpful, but do you mean these files?

    http://thomas.loc.gov/home/gpoxmlc111/h3200_rh.xml
    http://thomas.loc.gov/home/gpoxmlc111/h3200_ih.xml

    Sunlight or the government should list the bills that are not in XML if they're not all there, don't you think?

    The second hit from Google search with "US Code in XML" is http://uscode.house.gov/xml/ It might be what you're after.

    Also check out http://voodoo.law.cornell.edu/uscxml/ - so two choices.

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  4. My mistake. The Healthcare bill is 111 HR 3590 (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:h.r.03590:). It is displayed in html on Thomas, but I don't see XML for it. As your comments (and my post) show, there is increasing interest in these data issues, which is helping to drive change.

    Things are moving forward quickly, though, and the mechanisms seem to be in place to produce most, if not all, bills in XML now. However, that XML uses a different structure from the U.S. Code XML (http://uscode.house.gov/xml/), and the U.S. Code XML is only current through 2006, with updates to certain other Titles through 2010. Cornell's U.S. Code XML similarly reflects a single point in time.

    For tax26.com, we are using the html versions of the US Code Prelim, and parsing the internal references. The current bill XHTML from the House is quite well-structured, with valuable metadata that I would like to see in future US Code versions. Beyond this, changes need to be made in the way Congress writes bills, in order for them more easily to be integrated in codified statutes.

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