Congress should publish Statutes-at-Large as open data

U.S. Capitol at Night

Two years ago, Congress began publishing the U.S. Code in the XML markup language, a remarkably versatile format that can be read both by people and by machines. That small step was hailed as a win for those seeking a more transparent and open government. The XML data have been used by Web developers and social entrepreneurs to build platforms that allow citizens to search the U.S. Code for specific laws. This should lead to increased transparency, and may even make the lawmaking process more efficient and less error-prone.

A new bill sponsored by Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., proposes to do the same with the U.S. Statutes-at-Large as been done with the U.S. Code. H.R. 4006 would put the Statutes-at-Large online in a searchable format and direct the National Archives to work with both private and public agencies to have them in XML format by 2020.

The Statutes-at-Large are the permanent evidence of all the laws and resolutions ever passed by Congress. They also contain all presidential proclamations, proposed and ratified constitutional amendments, congressional reorganization plans and even historical treaties with Indian nations and some foreign nations. Unlike the U.S. Code, the Statutes-at-Large contain expired laws, repealed laws and original statutes that have been amended. One volume of the statutes are published each congressional session.

The Library of Congress and the Government Publishing Office already publish them online, but only in PDF format. The PDF pages often are just scanned pages of the paper version; they don’t feature advanced search options and they aren’t machine-readable. As a consequence, the PDFs often are time-consuming to load and the more modern versions of the statutes published by the GPO are not very user friendly. By contrast, the website for the U.S. Code allows visitors to search by subject and conduct more advanced searches if necessary.

The U.S. Code does not contain the full body of federal legislative history. It also does not contain private laws, which have been enacted to affect a small number of people. Placing the Statutes-at-Large online in a modern, easily searchable format would make it much easier for the average citizen to stay informed and offer huge benefits to historians, researchers and journalists looking to study the history and meaning behind a given law.

This is not uncharted territory. As mentioned earlier, the U.S. Code was placed online in XML format in 2013. All the National Archives has to do, if it does its homework, is apply the same U.S. Legislative Model (USLM) XML structure to the Statutes-at-Large. This will make both the code and statutes interoperable and make it easier to crosslink between them.

The cost is also relatively modest. The bill appropriates $5 million a year to the National Archives over the next five years for the project. While it is important to control federal spending, the reality is $5 million is a rounding error in a federal budget that is expected to reach nearly $4 trillion this year. The benefits of greater transparency and a more informed electorate could easily outweigh the modest costs of fostering a more healthy democratic system.

In an increasingly divided Washington, more transparency in government is a goal on which both parties historically have agreed. We hope that this continues and that the Statutes-at-Large Modernization Act is enacted swiftly by Congress.

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