System will generate bills, reports faster

Determined to keep pace electronically with the rest of the federal government the legislative branch is moving into the era of the "cyber Congress."

A new document management system will provide more than 2 000 Senate members and staff a set of digital tools to generate legislation and accompanying reports more quickly.

Called the Senate Legislative Information System (LIS) the 18-month-old initiative represents the Senate's effort to ramp up for a larger system for the Library of Congress also called LIS which will provide congressional members and staff a comprehensive view of legislation in process while simultaneously extending pointers to related information generated by noncongressional sources such as news stories.

With a request for proposals due out next spring Senate LIS is still in the formative stages. But when complete it will ease the creation of legislation which is now carried out in a frenzy of administrative activity.

"Legislative workflow now goes through a process that is really geared toward print " said Jeff Griffith a Congressional Research Service (CRS) specialist in information technology. "And the workload and pace there - not withstanding all outside appearances - has really grown dramatically."

The print process of course is the set of procedures through which the Senate directs its products to the Government Printing Office for distribution. While electronic dissemination of legislation to the public has come a long way through efforts such as GPO's World Wide Web site and LOC's Thomas system internal computing resources that generate that information have lagged. For instance Senate legislative products often arrive at GPO on tape and are generated through an outdated word processing application called XyWrite.

"You could say in general that whatever systems the House Senate and Library of Congress currently have in operation are all 20-year-old mainframe systems " said Larry Harris administrative assistant to the Senate Sergeant at Arms who provides technical support to the Office of the Secretary of the Senate which sponsors Senate computing initiatives. The Senate Rules Committee has general oversight responsibility for efforts such as Senate LIS.

"The systems are not Year 2000-compliant so immediate attention must be paid to all of these macrosystems " Harris said. "The Senate therefore is working toward a client/server architecture that will fuel applications such as Senate LIS - a document and database management system that will facilitate internal reporting requirements."

The Constitution requires the Senate and House to maintain a journal of record Harris said. The goal of this journal is to show the public the Senate's work but the Senate's internal computing resources need attention now.

According to an internal Senate flyer on the system Senate LIS will allow any staff member with a PC to access background information and analyses on policy issues including the text summary and status of bills material contained in the Congressional Record and information from CRS and the Congressional Budget Office.

"This initiative will make available digitally everything we have " said John McConnel professional staff member for the Senate Rules Committee.

KPMG Peat Marwick was hired last year to staff a project office dedicated to Senate LIS which was funded at $5 million in the current budget. KPMG will manage subsequent contractor support for the effort.

-- Jones is a contributing writer based in Falls Church Va.

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