Written bySamantha Ehlinger
House Speaker Paul Ryan announced plans this week to convert “all legislative measures” to Extensible Markup Language, known as XML, which would allow developers to scrape the data and also make legislation more searchable.
Speaking at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, Ryan said the project would help lawmakers and the public to track legislation and make Congress more transparent. It was part of a spate of projects to modernize Congress that officials announced at the event.
“I’ve asked our team to keep moving ahead by publishing all legislative measures in a standard format,” Ryan said in his announcement.
The Bulk Data Task Force, created by Ryan’s predecessor John Boehner, will lead a coalition of Hill organizations to convert the legislation, starting with the most recent. By the end of the year, officials aim to publish in XML format most of the enrolled bills and public laws from 2013 on, and the statutes at large from 2003 forward, a task force staffer told FedScoop.
The staffer added the most recent legislation is in “the best digital shape” to be converted to XML.
The measures will be converted into United States Legislative Markup Language — a model for writing legislation in XML. Currently the U.S. Code is published in USLM schema.
“We want to have a project we can start and complete in a fairly short time frame,” Lisa LaPlant, Federal Digital System program manager for the Government Publishing Office, which is initially funding the project.
In his remarks at the conference, Ryan said having XML-based laws would have helped him in policymaking: Two years ago, Ryan said he wanted to see how the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, a federal program to help at-risk families with young children, compared to a 1921 law called the Sheppard-Towner Act.
He said XML would have made it easier for him to search and find the law’s history and context.
“Those are the things that will help us as policymakers avoid making or repeating the mistakes of the past,” he said.
He added, “So that, to me, is one example of how your work here is extremely valuable. In addition to transparency, you’re also helping us do better public policy.”
Also at the conference, Deputy Clerk of the House of Representatives Robert Reeves laid out plans for a new, responsive House telephone directory website, which will provide the names, titles and phone numbers — though not the email addresses — of staffers in congressional offices. People visiting the site with their cell phones will be able to call the offices directly, he said.
The online directory, will be available to the public Aug. 1, is part of the clerk’s plan to reduce the number of hard-copy phonebooks printed each year, Reeves said.
LaPlant announced a new legislative composition system will launch in 2017 in beta. And officials noted that the web-based application Amendment Impact Program, which would show how an amendment would impact the bill in real time, is undergoing testing.
Only 8 percent of congressional staffers think information technology in Congress is as good as or better than the private sector, according to an OpenGov Foundation poll of 122 congressional staffers conducted on the bipartisan social networking app Cloakroom.
Projects like the one announced by Ryan could help change that, said Seamus Kraft, executive director of the OpenGov Foundation and a former Hill staffer. The next step will be figuring out how legislators can maximize use of this data to be more efficient, Kraft said.
“We haven’t really started scratching the surface on connecting the benefits of open data and open legislative data to everything else that happens inside of the institution,” Kraft said.
For the future, Kraft said he hopes the project will be open source and have a playbook to aid state and local governments that are following in Congress’ footsteps.
“That’s ultimately where I’d love to see this go and you know I think, under Speaker Ryan, there’s a chance of that happening,” he said.