Friday, January 20, 2012

Legislative Standards: U.S. House Conference

The U.S. House will hold a conference about transparency and legislative data on February 2, 2012 (with remote streaming?).  As Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation writes, "This is a big deal."  In this time of extreme partisanship and one-upmanship in politics, legislative data transparency is both important and that both sides can, in principle, agree on.

I've written before about the importance of consistent standards in legislation, the use of meaningful metadata, and the value of version control. Federal legislative data currently passes through at least five offices on the way to being codified.  Because of many historical quirks, the codified version (the "U.S. Code") is often not the actual law, though for convenience most people, even lawyers, pretend that it is.  Simplifying the content of the law, as President Obama and others have called for in tax law, becomes harder when the basic technical issues of changing the law are so arcane and complex.

The Feb. 2 conference, brings together six offices that prepare legislative data on its way from bill to code, and can spark the creation of a unified data standard to make creating and understanding the law more accessible.  In the next few posts, I will detail some suggestions of key changes that would advance these goals.  For example:

  1. Write in plain English
  2. Write changes to statutory sections as full replacements of previous sections. Use a consistent format to make changes (e.g. "Section 444 is amended to read as follows:"). 
  3. Commit to enacting positive law codification for all Titles. A positive law codification project for Title 26 should be considered as a non-partisan starting point for the effort to simplify tax law.
  4. Adopt a clean and simple XML data standard for Federal Legislation.
These are not original suggestions, nor are they comprehensive, but making these changes would provide the foundations for a far more transparent legislative framework.