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decisions, budget and financial data, regulations, executive branch policies, public and private sector analyses, lobby group position papers, and newspaper reports from local, national, and international sources. They also need immediate access to official records, publications, and documents from the current and from previous Congresses. Finally, after policies have been agreed upon and laws have been passed, they need information about the effects of these decisions on the domestic and international affairs of this country. For a legislative information system to serve the Congress well, it must be able to acquire and provide this broad range of information to Congress on a timely basis, in formats that are understandable, and in ways that support the legislative decision making process both now and in the future.
In addition, much of the information that lawmakers require has to be available to them before it becomes a formal publication. For example, actions on pending legislation are recorded in a variety of printed sources, but it is important for Members and staff to have the status of bills as soon as possible, often before it is printed. Similarly, Members need the text of amendments before it is available in official publications. An example of a new information source of increasing value is the video record of floor proceedings. Through cable television, Members can see floor actions as they occur, but they have no means for recalling and reviewing such data on a timely basis. New technology, likely to be available on a production basis within the next 12-24 months, could be incorporated into the legislative information system to make this possible.
To best serve the needs of Members, therefore, a new legislative information system has to be broadly conceived and must include information in a variety of formats, including text, data, audio, and video available from a wide range of sources on a timely basis.
The discussions that follow in this section (DATA SOURCES: GOVERNMENT INFORMATION) and in the next section (COMMERCIAL AND OTHER NON-GOVERNMENT) identify the categories of information that the Library recommends for inclusion in the system. These lists will need to be modified as more users have an opportunity to comment on them. Because everything cannot be brought online at the same time, the Working Group will need to establish a more specific ordering. Although this should probably be based on the assumption that data currently available to Congress in one of its existing systems should be incorporated into the new system first, the Working Group may want to make modifications based upon user feedback and a determination of more pressing requirements.
The system should include all published versions of all bills, including both the official full text version prepared by the GPO and the annotated version by the Library, with links to support agency publications and the most current version of the U.S. Code. The Office of the Legislative Counsel of both the House and the Senate play a critical role in the preparation of a large majority
of the bills introduced each year. These Offices are already working with GPO on the preparation and tagging of bill text, and it would be useful to explore the possibility of the Legislative Counsels coordinating with the Working Group to support the timeliness, accuracy, and utility of the new legislative information system.
A new legislative information system for Congress can provide the opportunity to improve the availability of information on both floor and committee amendments. If adequate data tagging standards can be developed and implemented for both bills and amendments, display technology could enable users to view more complete information about the content and status of a given amendment by itself, as well as see how the bill would read if the amendment were approved. Achieving these improvements may require some procedural changes in the way amendments are handled in the House, such as establishing a formal numbering system. Such changes, however, would provide considerable benefit to Members and staff in locating and displaying information about amendments. See Appendix D for a more detailed discussion about ways to improve access to amendments.
Status of Bills
Timeliness, accuracy, and detail are critical criteria for this data. Several years ago, House Information Resources pioneered a method for providing a summary of House floor proceedings within 10-15 minutes of the actual event. Today's technology offers the potential for linking data that is this timely to the bill or amendment itself so that users can have very current status information. The importance of accuracy dictates that the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate be the source of these data for floor actions and that they have the tools to enter and correct data as quickly as possible. Sufficient detail is important both because of the need to understand what happened (e.g., was it a voice or recorded vote, what was the recorded vote number, where in the Record can the debate be found, etc.) and because of the number of questions that the leadership, committees, and members ask about workload and about actions (e.g., how many times did the House vote to suspend the rules). Currently, the House, Senate, and the Library each collect some status steps, some of which are overlapping, others of which do not contain sufficient information. The Library recommends that a subteam of the Working Group address this overlap and develop procedures for collecting status information as efficiently as possible while meeting the criteria of timeliness, accuracy, and detail.
The status of legislation within committees poses a special challenge. Knowing both what has happened to a bill in committee and also what is scheduled to happen is an important need of Members, staff and support agencies. Committees, on the other hand are deluged with work, and while they are the authoritative source of these data, they need tools that enable them to collect, prepare, and distribute this information quickly and easily. Ideally, committees should be able to create and disseminate status and schedule
information as a natural by-product of work they must do for themselves. A number of commercial companies have been able to develop a profitable business in part from having employees in the field to collect such information from the committees. While this is beneficial to many, it means that congressional offices that need this information, which Congress itself creates, have to pay for it.
The Library recommends that the proposed subteam on status address ways to acquire both floor and committee actions, scheduled as well as completed actions, on a more timely basis. This will require an analysis of the cost of purchasing this information from commercial vendors compared to the cost of developing and maintaining a system or systems that help committees provide this information themselves, with minimum impact on committee staff time. House Information Resources has an initiative under way now to examine this issue, and the Senate Rules Committee is considering a similar project.
Over time, the Congressional Record has come to serve many important functions for the Congress. It is a record of debate, a schedule of activities, a forum for the publication of ideas, a means of recognizing achievements, a method of communicating with constituents, a system for recording official business, and a widely accessible medium of communication about the activities of Congress. As a consequence it is both vital and costly. The GPO has had to be highly creative and effective in developing systems to meet Congress' requirements for the Congressional Record. Nevertheless, as Congress addresses the need to reduce its own costs, one of the issues it may wish to consider is whether there are other, less costly, yet equally effective means of meeting the multiple objectives of the Record. The improving state of electronic publication, and the increased availability and value of video data, combined with efforts to create and collect data more efficiently may allow for such opportunities. The Library recommends that a subteam of the Working Group be established to determine the feasibility of this proposal.
Timeliness, accuracy, and accessibility are the important criteria for committee publications, which include hearings, reports (from both individual and conference committees), prints and documents. Hearings can be further delineated to include submitted testimony, and both unedited and edited transcripts of testimony. Also, testimony can be recorded and distributed in print and, increasingly, in audio and video media. There is an understandable tension between committees, which, with decreasing staff resources, are responsible for the cost and accuracy of these publications, and those outside of committees, including Member offices, support agencies, and the public, who always want immediate access to these publications. This is another area in which private firms are developing businesses from the demand for these publications, even though the documents they produce are unofficial.
Technology cannot provide a simple answer to the conflicting pressures that surround committee publications. It is reasonable, however, to include within
the mandate of the Working Group the task of making recommendations regarding standards and systems that can help committees accomplish their work more efficiently, and, therefore, help address some of these concerns. It may be possible for the Working Group to work with interested committees and the GPO to evaluate systems that could meet some of these requirements.
Information about votes, while extremely important, is also extremely sensitive. On the one hand, they are a public record of a Member's position on issues. On the other hand, they are often difficult to categorize accurately. A number of congressional groups, private companies, and nonprofit organizations make it their business to characterize Members' votes. Yet it can be difficult to know what a Member intended by his or her vote by the description of the vote alone. On the other hand, most offices would find it useful to have some valid, non-partisan description of votes by topic, e.g, defense appropriations, etc.
The Library recommends that the new legislative information system be designed to make it possible for Members to retrieve a comprehensive record of their own recorded votes as easily as possible, so that each office does not have to duplicate this information on its own. Offices may, of course, choose to augment this basic data with their own information regarding the context, purpose, etc. Any office or the public should also be able to find an accurate listing of the yeas and nays on any recorded vote in the system as they can now through the online versions of the Congressional Record, although the new system should make it easier to locate and display these votes.
The Library also recommends that the Working Group consider whether and how it might be possible to provide a non-partisan description of votes by topic. Beyond these basic capabilities, however, the Library recommends that the new legislative system not provide any additional functionality regarding
This category includes both the Statutes-at-Large and the U.S. Code. The major challenge in this category is that the most current version of the U.S. Code is produced by commercial companies. The schedule for updating the Code is controlled by law, with the result that those who can afford commercial services often use those as a first choice, even though they are unofficial.
Treaties, Nominations, Executive Communications
These categories are a part of the current Senate Legis system and should be included in the new legislative information system. With the growth in full text systems, these files should eventually be expanded to include the complete text of each of these items.
Legislative Branch Support agency Information
All Legislative Branch agency publications should be included in the system with links among their individual reports, and, when appropriate, between them and specific pieces of legislation.
Executive Branch AND Judicial Branch Information
Congress should have reliable, timely access to all Executive and Judicial Branch information relevant to its work. The key issue is establishing priorities as well as taking advantage of cost-effective opportunities. There has been a significant growth in Executive Branch information accessible through open architecture, but access to Judicial Branch information, while improving, is still primarily available through modern technology from commercial vendors. Beyond the issue of access is the problem of linking to data sources as easily as possible. This is another task that can be made less costly through the establishment of data standards.
Finally, it is important to note, given the trends in federal/state relations, that information by and about state policies, plans, legislation, and programs will become increasingly important. This is yet another area where commercial systems tend to have the most advanced capabilities, although many states are now beginning to make their official publications available on the Internet.
DATA SOURCES: COMMERCIAL AND OTHER NON-GOVERNMENT
A number of commercial companies have developed good systems for providing access to legislative information. Developed in the 1980s, after the congressionally funded House, Senate, and Library systems had demonstrated their value, these systems have evolved to serve a growing pay-for-service market. In certain areas, such as committee schedules and activities, political analysis, newspaper stories, case law, and the U.S. Code, they provide more upto-date information than any of the congressional systems. Many congressional offices as well as the support agencies (GAO, CBO, and CRS) have found various commercial services essential for performing their work. Many of these companies also rely heavily on congressionally produced data (e.g., the text of bills, committee reports, etc.) obtained from GPO, to which they add their own value-added services. A detailed comparative matrix of legislative information available from congressional and from commercial sources is available from CRS upon request.'
"The title of the working document is WHERE TO FIND INFORMATION IN CONGRESSIONAL DATA SYSTEMS. This is a working document updated annually (June 1995 was the most recent update). It is not a formal CRS product.