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House Appropriators May Limit Public Availability of Pending Bills 194

Posted by samzenpus
from the no-bill-for-you dept.
Attila Dimedici writes "The House Appropriations Committee is considering a draft report that would forbid the Library of Congress to allow bulk downloads of bills pending before Congress. The Library of Congress currently has an online database called THOMAS (for Thomas Jefferson) that allows people to look up bills pending before Congress. The problem is that THOMAS is somewhat clunky and it is difficult to extract data from it. This draft report would forbid the Library of Congress from modernizing THOMAS until a task force reports back. I am pretty sure that the majority of people on Slashdot agree that being able to better understand how the various bills being considered by Congress interact would be good for this country."
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House Appropriators May Limit Public Availability of Pending Bills

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  • Obviously (Score:5, Funny)

    by Stirling Newberry (848268) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:06AM (#40178435) Homepage Journal
    The Gingrich Revolution is too far to the left for the current House of Representatives.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      This is news? The current GOP pols are far to the right of that liberal Demagogue Nixon. The health care reform package that the current GOP is so outraged about would likely have been signed no further questions asked by Nixon as it's more conservative than what he was proposing at the time.

      What's more back then the GOP recognized that we do indeed need the federal government to do somethings as leaving things up to the states didn't work out so well during our trial run as a confederation.

      • This is news? The current GOP pols are far to the right of that liberal Demagogue Nixon. The health care reform package that the current GOP is so outraged about would likely have been signed no further questions asked by Nixon as it's more conservative than what he was proposing at the time.

        You sure about that? [wikisource.org]

    • Re:Obviously (Score:5, Insightful)

      by JackieBrown (987087) <dbroome@gmail.com> on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:13AM (#40178485)

      This is reasonable per Pelosi. As she said "we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it"
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoE1R-xH5To [youtube.com]

      • by PopeRatzo (965947)

        This is reasonable per Pelosi.

        Except, the Republicans run the House of Representatives now, and they run the Appropriations Committee who actually made this pronouncement, so wouldn't it be more appropriate to say that it is "reasonable per Boehner"? Or maybe, "reasonable per Koch" since that's who runs the Republican Party?

        I mean, if you wanted to be accurate...

        • Re:Obviously (Score:5, Insightful)

          by d3ac0n (715594) on Friday June 01, 2012 @08:14AM (#40178989)

          He IS being accurate. He is pointing out that hiding the content of legislation isn't a GOP problem, it's a Democrat problem, as evidenced by the video he linked.

          When Pelosi had control of the house, she intentionally and purposefully hid the contents of the "Obamacare" bill and used parliamentary tricks to avoid debate. There was even talk that the Democrats would use a trick called "Deem and Pass" to simply "Deem" the bill passed WITHOUT taking a vote on it. Yep, that's right; The Democrats, not the Republicans wanted to suspend the democratic process and simply force through a bill they wanted because people opposed it. This was a historical first for any Congress, and it was the Democrats that tried it. In the end they dropped it due to massive public pressure, and the bill passed on purely partisan lines. (Note that the Democrats had total control of both houses of Congress at the time.)

          Also, as another poster pointed out below, wanting a full accounting and report of any major project so that all interested parties can review it before signing off on the expenditure is a responsible thing to do, something we want our representatives doing. Why is this bad just because the GOP is doing it? Doesn't that strike you as a hypocritical position to take?

          As that other posted noted, this article is itself a troll and nothing but FUD. THOMAS isn't going down, even during the upgrade, so no access will be lost. The GOP just wants to do the upgrade properly and with full oversight. They should be applauded for being responsible with our money.

          • Re:Obviously (Score:4, Interesting)

            by hrvatska (790627) on Friday June 01, 2012 @09:28AM (#40179777)
            "Deem and Pass" Is Not "Without a Vote", and both parties use it. The Republicans used it to pass a budget bill in the House recently. The Dems used it in the House for healthcare legislation. The Republicans used it to pass the Bush tax cuts. There are plenty of examples of both parties using it. Both sides cry about the other side using this technique, but they both use it when it's to their advantage.
          • Re:Obviously (Score:4, Insightful)

            by WrecklessSandwich (1000139) on Friday June 01, 2012 @09:29AM (#40179815)

            You mean the "Deem and Pass" trick the Boehner House actually tried to use at least once for the godawful GOP budget bills to try to bypass the Senate? Doesn't that strike you as a hypocritical position to take? Quick, post some more out of context Fox News clips of out of context quotes to show what a partisan shill you are.

            It isn't the Democrats or the Republicans or even the (bad) 2-party system that's the problem. The problem is the Red vs. Blue adversarial partisan bullshit pushed by people like you that makes every issue divisive for its own sake to the point that nonsense like hiding the content of legislation and "Deem and Pass" are more attractive options than intelligent discussion. Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay must be spinning in their graves.

            That being said, I agree with you about TFA being complete nonsense.

            • by DavidTC (10147)

              Actually, no, it's not the same thing.

              What the Republicans House did with the budget was simply decide to pretend that the Senate had passed the Ryan budget for the purposes of House Committee stuff. The House obviously has no power to decide what the Senate has and has not passed, but it can pretend whatever the hell it wants for its own internal rule purposes, no matter how delusional such a thing is.

              So what the House did wasn't 'Deem and Pass', it's 'Let's Pretend the Senate Passed This'. Which is com

          • by Livius (318358)

            "[H]iding the content of legislation" is bipartisan, and (from their perspective) it isn't a problem, it's the goal.

          • He IS being accurate. He is pointing out that hiding the content of legislation isn't a GOP problem, it's a Democrat problem, as evidenced by the video he linked.

            No, it's an idiot problem, exacerbated by the insistence of other idiots on perpetuating bullshit partisan rhetoric, despite the obvious fact both parties are just two sides of the same coin.

            I recommend you stop getting your political information from goddamn Youtube videos, and check out the voting records of the politicians for yourself.

      • by geekmux (1040042)

        This is reasonable per Pelosi. As she said "we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoE1R-xH5To [youtube.com]

        Spoken like a true representative of the elite living above the laws they make for everyone else to abide by.

      • I think a poorly-worded soundbite is a bit different from actual legislation to that effect. Kind of like how it was funny when Gore seemed to be saying that he invented the Internet, but wouldn't be funny if he tried to pass legislation giving him full ownership and control of the Internet.
    • by sycodon (149926) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:53AM (#40178779)

      Let's try a more reasonable one...

      "The House Appropriations Committee is considering holding off on modernizing THOMAS until the system "owners" finalize the specifications."

      It is entirely reasonable to put a hold on a project until everyone knows what it's going to be and buys off on the changes.

      I am pretty sure that the majority of people on Slashdot agree that to dive into a project that will undoubtedly be large and expensive and is highly visible without nailing down the details first is irresponsible and a recipe for failure.

      • by sycodon (149926) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:54AM (#40178791)

        I forgot to mention that there is no discussion of taking THOMAS offline pending the upgrade.

      • by d3ac0n (715594)

        Thank you for your both Insightful and Informative post. If I had mod points I would vote you up. Far too many people on /. have this "Republicans are EEEVIILL! *HISSSSS*" reaction to anything that the GOP (or a body the GOP currently controls) does without even considering the source.

        Personally I agree that it is valid to want a full accounting and report before all interested parties sign off on a major system upgrade. Glad to see SOMEONE in Washington is actually concerned with doing things right and

      • I wrote the headline and the summary. I was not exactly happy with how they came out, but I thought the topic and points being discussed in the two articles linked to in the summary should be discussed on slashdot. I think that THOMAS and the proposed changes are good things. I, also, felt that both articles were somewhat hyperbolic in their approach to the issue, but I wanted to be sure that this made it to the frontpage so I stayed with the tenor of those two articles in my summary.
        I do think that the a
    • by readin (838620)

      The Gingrich Revolution is too far to the left for the current House of Representatives.

      We can only hope. However they're going way to the left of Gingrich with this proposal - at least in terms of it becoming easier for elites to make laws "for the good of the people" without having to worry about what the people actually think. However it is not quite as far to the left as the typical left-wing tactic of using the courts to enact policies it can't get the public to support.

  • by SirGarlon (845873) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:12AM (#40178479)
    A move to restrict public visibility into the legislative process seems like a bad idea in an election year. If only the minority party in the House had the balls to exploit this...
  • by Covalent (1001277) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:12AM (#40178481)
    THOMAS may only allow 1 bill at a time, but there are only so many bills before Congress. Download them one at a time and make an external database. Host that site yourself.

    The government SHOULD do this, but if they refuse, simply go around them. This is how governments should always be treated: Encouraged when useful, bypassed when not.
    • by SirGarlon (845873)

      Download them one at a time and make an external database. Host that site yourself.

      I am pretty sure I could write a script to do that in one day, and many Slashdotters could do it quicker.

    • by Fnord666 (889225)

      THOMAS may only allow 1 bill at a time, but there are only so many bills before Congress. Download them one at a time and make an external database. Host that site yourself.

      They will figure a way to claim copyright and send DMCA notices to get the site taken down. That assumes they don't just sieze the entire domain and the servers.

      • by Covalent (1001277)
        I agree with the sentiment, but I don't think that would be a problem. These bills are part of the public domain. Now Congress could pass a law changing that status...but I don't want to give them any ideas!
        • If they're drafted by private parties and then copyright transferred to the US Gov't, Uncle Sam can hold the copyright.

          Since the majority of bills are drafted by lobbyists, there's nothing in principle stopping Congress from blocking distribution on the grounds of protecting the copyright on the original special-interest draft and any derivative works.

          • However, there is an incredibly strong fair use argument for such behavior, as in, pretty much the strongest fair use argument ever. If it doesn't get laughed out of court, then it is undeniably time for a bloody revolution.
          • by mcgrew (92797) *

            But then they would have to admit that the bills were in fact drafted by lobbyists.

        • I agree with the sentiment, but I don't think that would be a problem. These bills are part of the public domain. Now Congress could pass a law changing that status...but I don't want to give them any ideas!

          That would surely require a constitutional amendment. Otherwise it could hardly be expected to withstand challenge on the basis that it 1) exceeds the powers granted in the Copyright Clause of the US Constitution (since such a law clearly does not promote the progress of Science and the useful arts), and 2) that it violates the first amendment right to discuss public affairs. I would expect the government to be enjoined from enforcing such a law within days if not hours.

          • by ATMAvatar (648864)
            Nonsense! We need intellectual property protections for the content of proposed bills to encourage these wondrous innovators to create more bills in the future! Why do you hate America?
          • That would surely require a constitutional amendment.

            Hardly. It would just require our silent acquiescence.

            Like how Obama has normalized Bush's radical policies of due process free detention, and has gone a step further with his policy of due process free execution. I mean, if your willing to let the executive branch on its own and in secret be the "due process" in the phrase "no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law," then there is absolutely nothing the president can't do because executing American citizens without trial is as big as it gets.

            Obama has been the worst thing to happen to freedom and liberty ever -- at least when GWB was doing the things Obama does, Democrats pretended to care and push back. Now they just silently acquiesce, or worse, actively support the constitutional destruction they once opposed (for instance Marty Lederman [salon.com].

            As a liberal, I hate to say it, but we'd be better off with a freak like Santorum as president, who basically promised war with Iran, because then perhaps the Democrats would go back to pretending to care about peace and freedom, and fight back against all this crap. With Obama in the office for another four years though, the damage to civil liberties and freedom will be immense because Democrats will just sit on their hands and let it continue to happen.

            • That would surely require a constitutional amendment.

              Hardly. It would just require our silent acquiescence.

              Like how Obama has normalized Bush's radical policies of due process free detention...

              Even the War on Terror trump card goes only so far. Extending copyright so that access to bills could be restricted is so pointless and would antagonize so may powerful organizations that silent acquiescence is most unlikely. The line to sue would be out the door. People would see this as affecting their rights. In contrast, almost nobody thinks that rules about enemy combatants could ever have any relevance to him.

        • by PopeRatzo (965947)

          These bills are part of the public domain.

          But strangely, as many of us know, the regulations are not part of the public domain.

          In fact, a very large portion of U.S. law is proprietary, and if you were to publish or display it in any way you would get sued.

          That is the downside of having corporations write those laws.

    • by buchner.johannes (1139593) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:31AM (#40178623) Homepage Journal

      THOMAS may only allow 1 bill at a time, but there are only so many bills before Congress. Download them one at a time and make an external database. Host that site yourself.

      It would be nice to see a git-tree of legislations (revision history, diffs, who wrote what line when). I'm not expecting governments to do that, but it might be insightful and interesting.

      • by sycodon (149926)

        What would be even nicer is if they required all Bills to be written in some form of structural language.

        Imagine being able to query a bill to find the salient points...who it applies to, each specific provision, etc. That would go a long way towards simplification and clarity. Conceivably, you could also do some form of syntax check and "compile" in the sense that you could find provisions that are vague. References to a population that do not have a previously declared definition.

        For instance..."All docto

        • We have this discussion every now and then on slashdot, but if you think about it for a while, it is pretty obvious why it wouldn't work.

          Justice is not a set of instructions. That law is interpreted by humans and can change in practice over time is a good thing.

          • by sycodon (149926)

            I would suggest that Justice is implemented via a set of instructions. And that the fact the interpretation of a law changing over time due to different interpretations is a bad thing.

            Primary example is the Constitution. It has a very well defined mechanism to make changes that insure those changes are the result of a very broad agreement, which in itself requires a great amount of deliberation. Instead of the interpretation changing, the should change the document.

            Laws are more easily changed of course but

      • by ATMAvatar (648864)
        I haven't looked too much at it to determine if it has that kind of fine-grained revision history, but what you are asking for is essentially here [github.com].
      • by haapi (16700)

        "... Rev 1.1 ALEC@master"

      • by TheSpoom (715771)

        It would be nice to see a git-tree of legislations (revision history, diffs, who wrote what line when). I'm not expecting governments to do that, but it might be insightful and interesting.

        https://github.com/divegeek/uscode [github.com]

    • by wireloose (759042) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:44AM (#40178701)
      I don't see it as a big issue, either. The original article and the repost here are all FUD. If you read the bill, the congressional concerns are that the legislative data is downloaded intact and authenticated. They seem to be concerned that there is no way to lock an XML file in a manner similar to a PDF, which is already a common format used by much of the federal government. There is also concern about certificates. And there is language about the costs of developing a system. It's all in the bill itself, pages 17 and 18.

      http://appropriations.house.gov/UploadedFiles/LEGBRANCH-FY13-FULLCOMMITTEEREPORT.pdf

      Obviously, the biggest issue is that detractors for each party will modify downloaded bills to meet their own political agendas and mudslinging goals. I would prefer to see this done correctly, too.
      • by sycodon (149926)

        Hear Hear!

      • by Hatta (162192)

        These "concerns" are all bunk. Just supply an html directory tree of all the pending laws, with each law signed with GPG. You're done. I bet it would cost them less to implement this than to keep Thomas running.

        You don't even really need the GPG signatures. If someone edits a law for propaganda purposes, the original version should always be there for reference.

        There are no legitimate concerns here. Only stonewalling.

        • by swillden (191260)

          You don't even really need the GPG signatures. If someone edits a law for propaganda purposes, the original version should always be there for reference.

          +1.

          If there were a concern about partisans being able to break in and alter the version being distributed, that would be legitimate -- but GPG signatures would address it. Outside of that... it has always been possible for people to create fake versions of documents and try to pass them off as the real thing, and yet this doesn't appear to have been an issue for pending legislation in the past.

    • by Livius (318358)

      Not to mention a wonderful and legal role for bittorrent.

  • by davecb (6526) <davec-b@rogers.com> on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:15AM (#40178493) Homepage Journal

    The busy little beavers who track bills now include committee hearings. For example, here's some of the debate on the Copyright Act, C-11 [openparliament.ca]

    --dave

  • by SirGarlon (845873) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:21AM (#40178545)
    Since the author of TFA was too lazy to Google for this and paste in a hyperlink, here [house.gov] is the current membership of the House Committee on Appropriations. If one of these jackass^H^H^H^H fine public servants represents your district, you might want to let him/her know what you think of this report.
  • Git (Score:4, Insightful)

    by QuantumRiff (120817) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:38AM (#40178657)

    I know there are all sorts of craziness for bills, but wouldn't something like a Git repository be ideal? that way, you can have the hash of the exact version of the bill your voting on, so the people know stuff wasn't 'slipped in' before it becomes law. Oh, wait, that is probably a 'feature'

    • by swillden (191260)

      I know there are all sorts of craziness for bills, but wouldn't something like a Git repository be ideal? that way, you can have the hash of the exact version of the bill your voting on, so the people know stuff wasn't 'slipped in' before it becomes law. Oh, wait, that is probably a 'feature'

      I really need to get some time to work on it some more, but that was exactly the idea I had a few years ago when I set up github repositories to track the US Code [github.com] and Utah Code [github.com].

      Of course, the only data I had easy access to was the codified law, some time after it was passed and went into effect, so my repos only track changes at that point. But, yes, what would be perfect is a distributed version control system that tracks the changes. Each legislator, each committee, each house would have its own fork,

  • by overshoot (39700) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:49AM (#40178735)

    I am pretty sure that the majority of people on slashdot agree that being able to better understand how the various bills being considered by Congress interact would be good for this country.

    And that explains why it must be prevented.

  • by sirwired (27582) on Friday June 01, 2012 @07:51AM (#40178761)

    Ok, the appropriations committee wants to delay money for a new system to replace THOMAS. But THOMAS doesn't limit access now, it just sucks. Congress could want to withhold money for a number of reasons, some legitimate (they don't like the bidding process for the new system), some less so (they have a favored systems integrator in mind.)

    But if the current system is just lousy, but works, how is withholding a replacement in any way "limiting public availability of pending bills?"

  • How, if at all, would this affect a website like PopVox?

  • by sohmc (595388) on Friday June 01, 2012 @09:07AM (#40179533) Journal

    I personally want to have the ability to read any bill that has been introduced. THOMAS is a good system, but horribly outdated. It could be made so much better. But we make do with what we have.

    Improvements to the system should be that the database is updated in real-time, or at least as close to real-time as possible. There is no reason why this shouldn't be possible.

    My guess, however, is that reps want not to be able to be accountable for their votes. Not many representatives have easy access to their voting record on their official web site. I know my old rep did (Frank Wolf) but my current (Jim Moran) does not. While the information can be found on THOMAS, it adds an additional step.

    I know a few months ago, DC Counsel put an unpopular bill available online for comment. It was passed and when it finally it the news, there was outcry. The counsel said, "But you had a chance to comment." The problem was that they hid the bill on their website in a rarely browsed section, obfuscated, and ultimately in a place where no one would think to look. Stepping aside the fact that the news should have picked this up before it was voted on, the fact is that the DC Counsel followed the letter of the law, but not the spirit.

    Every politician must be not be trusted, even if they are from "your party" or even if you voted for the guy. The framers had this in mind when writing the Constitution.

    The thing that saddens me is that the original intentions of the Founding Fathers has long since gone: a government of the People, by the People, and for the People. I don't see this changing anytime soon.

  • by TheSpoom (715771)
    1. Create an open-source THOMAS replacement.
    2. Take criticisms from legislators, fix bugs, and implement feature requests until the feature set is similar / better than existing systems.
    3. Widely and loudly advertise the presence of such a system.
    4. If legislators ignore it, widely and loudly say that they're holding back progress and not being transparent with their governance.

    I'm a pretty skilled web developer, anyone want to help?

    • by TheSpoom (715771)

      Also, whose idea was it to make HTML ordered lists in comments have list-style: none? WTF, Slashdot?

    • And this is why I wanted this to get to the front page of slashdot. I don't happen to think the proposed report is as bad an idea as the summary I wrote makes it sound, but I could not think of a more evenhanded way to summarize the articles that would get to the slashdot front page.
  • I am pretty sure that the majority of people on Slashdot agree that being able to better understand how the various bills being considered by Congress interact would be good for this country.

    And thus not so good for politicians who don't really want people to see in advance what the congress is doing. I can see how this could be a conflict of interest (theirs and ours).

  • I'm sure government wants to squeeze its agenda through with minimal "interference" from the public. The more the public is in the dark about what government does, the more power the government has over its citizens. This country is headed down tyranny lane because its citizens are apathetic, frightened, and look to its elected officials as a security blanket. In fact, Americans would sooner government think for them as evidenced in the whole creationism vs. evolution vs. intelligent design. I, for one,
  • I am pretty sure that the majority of people on Slashdot agree that being able to better understand how the various bills being considered by Congress interact would be good for this country.

    Good for us and the country, bad for Congress critters.

  • This is in direct response to the outcry against SOPA. keep the public in the dark, they cant complain until its too late.

    Bastards, run them ALL out of town on the next train.

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