Transparency group decries legislative data bulk download prohibition

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A transparency watchdog is decrying draft House Appropriations Committee language that would indefinitely postpone public bulk downloads of legislative information in XML.

The language, in a report (.pdf) accompanying the House Appropriations legislative branch subcommittee's May 18 markup of its fiscal 2013 spending bill, is set to be voted on by the full House Appropriations Committee May 31.

The report would require a task force to examine issues surrounding XML bulk downloads of legislative data before making such data available to public. In particular, the report says the committee has concerns about the authenticity of downloads of bulk data in XML.

But that's a "red herring," says Daniel Schuman and Eric Mill, both of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based transparency goo-goo that has led efforts to make legislative data available for bulk download. In letters sent earlier this year, the foundation and other similarly-minded groups said public access to bulk data would pave the way for better online legislative tracking than is currently possible with THOMAS, the Library of Congress's once praised but now rapidly aging legislation information website. For every person who goes directly to THOMAS, at least two go to a third-party congressional action tracker, such as opencongress.org or govtrack.us, the foundation estimates.

"Verifying the authenticity of data can be performed securely and reliably with the use of metadata external to the data itself," Schuman and Mill say, adding that the Government Printing Office uses that method for its FDSys system.

"Bulk access to THOMAS data is a simpler and less controversial step than this draft report contemplates," they also say.

By setting up a task force to examine the issue but not creating a deadline for it to report back, House Appropriations would create a never-ending process to examine questions that have largely been resolved, contend Schuman and Mill. A similar legislative branch task force already set up in 2008 never reached any conclusions, they add.

For more:
- download the draft House Appropriations Committee report accompanying the fiscal 2013 markup of legislative branch appropriations (.pdf)
- read a blog post by Schuman and Mill about the bulk data language on Sunlightfoundation.org
- read talking points prepared by Schuman on the issue, also on Sunlightfoundation.org

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