Thursday, July 19, 2012

Meeting at US House on Congressional Legislation XML Standards

Tomorrow (July 20), there is going to be an "industry day" to discuss the U.S. House modernization project.  This includes projects from both the Office of Legislative Counsel (responsible for bill drafting) and the Law Revision Counsel (responsible for codifying legislation into the U.S. Code).  The project specifications describe goals for data encoding of U.S. legislation that point toward a truly modern system-- in which references in legislation can be identified and easily hyperlinked, and in which it might be possible to get an up-to-date version of a law without having to manually trace the entire amendment history.


As I've mentioned before, technology alone is not enough.  Congress needs to take at least two steps in the way it writes bills, in order to make legislation more amenable to automated updates and analysis:

1. Move ahead with positive law codification: the Law Revision Counsel has prepared a number of Titles of U.S. law for passage into positive law.  This would mean replacing the cobwebs of hundreds of overlapping laws and amendments with a single, authoritative text.  This is never an urgent matter for Congress, but it does represent a very important and long overdue Housecleaning. For each Title that is passed into positive law, Congress now has a single base from which to work when making amendments.

2. Write new bills with full section-by-section text replacements.  Currently, bills may change a single word, a sentence or an entire passage.  The amendment is often described in words ("change the last word of the fourth sentence...").  Replacing entire sections makes automated redlining much more practical and effective, meaning that we could all more easily see what effect any new bill has on the existing legislation.

Of course, there is much more that could be said about each of these points, and about the goals that the Legislative Counsel and Law Revision Counsel have set out.  I am very encouraged to see the political will gathering to make technological changes to the way bills are drafted, and I just hope that Congress can also make the bureaucratic changes necessary to support this new technology.