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November 14, 2007

The History Transparency Enables

This was originally posted to The Open House Project's Google Group:

Transparency and opening up Congress will change the legislative process. (Of course, the legislative process needs changing, or we wouldn't be looking for reform, right?) Pretending they won't will only slow down the opening process.

There are vast differences between legislating and programming. They are almost as different as language is from numbers. Yes, there is a legislative process, but that process is entirely controlled by written words--the rules of each chamber--not mathematical code. These rules are written in English (no immigration reference intended) which must be interpreted and understood. Some rules are more well known than others and some are more used than others. And then you hear about those rules that are rarely invoked, especially in the Senate, but a little more in the House these days, too.

Enter structured data. A system that comprehensively can record everything that happens in a legislative chamber must have a place or way to account for anything that can happen. That means a thomas.loc.gov, GovTrack.us, OpenCongress.org or any open government kind of site should thoroughly know about every rule that can followed/invoked at any time.

Anyone can read the rules of a chamber, but there are only a very select few people in the world that have a thorough understanding of how these chambers work, and those folks most likely either are working in the parliamentarian's office, or once did and are now making lots of money working for lobbyists.

To see what I mean, take a look at any bill status page on Thomas and you'll see what I mean. As I've thought about how a bill becomes text, I've realized that the bill status page is just like a Twitter page for each bill where the chamber clerks manually write a line about what happened. A lot of it is consistent and therefore can be parsed, but there are no parsers out there that can anticipate every possible event recorded there.

Now, let's assume for a minute that we get over that rather formidable hump and we have a parser that can account for everything that can possibly happen in each chamber. Whoever builds that will know the chambers better than any staffer, and even staffers will know more of their procedural options for their legislative jousting efforts.

Once you know what your additional options are, you will use them!

That's when these reforms will change the legislative process.

Creating and getting Congress to internally adopt that kind of comprehensive electronic legislative recording environment means changing things with easily more than a century of history. Yes, this is indeed an uphill climb. These are not the efforts of one Congress or one election. These may not even be efforts of a single lifetime.

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