Transparency groups say THOMAS legislative website is outdated

The Library of Congress’ THOMAS online system for tracking legislation is outdated and needs to be overhauled to better serve the public, according to more than two dozen transparency watchdog groups.

The THOMAS website ought to be changed to allow for bulk downloads of the legislative data, the groups wrote in an April 10 letter to members of Congress. The letter was released by the Sunlight Foundation on its April 10 blog.

While THOMAS, named after Thomas Jefferson, initially was an innovative provider of basic information, its technology has fallen behind the times and the system is difficult to use, the groups, including the Sunlight Foundation and Project on Government Oversight, wrote in their letter.

Because of the difficulties with THOMAS, millions of Americans are relying on free third-party websites such as GovTrack, OpenCongress and Washington Watch, the groups asserted. But those websites still rely on THOMAS for the data, a process that is “imperfect, expensive and time-consuming,” the watchdog groups wrote.

“We estimate that for every person that goes directly to the THOMAS website, at least two people visit a third-party website,” Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, wrote in the group’s blog on April 10.

The better approach would be to make the legislative information available for bulk download in addition to other means, the letter said.

“Bulk access would in essence make the entire legislative database available for download, instead of requiring users to gather information by visiting hundreds or thousands of web pages. It would make it easier for third parties to build innovative new tools, and ensure that Americans have the most accurate information at their fingertips,” the watchdog groups said in the letter.

While lawmakers have already expressed support for bulk downloads, and while federal executive agency data is being downloaded through and other websites, THOMAS’ architecture has not been updated.

As Congress prepares appropriations for fiscal 2013, the groups urged that the Library of Congress to begin availability of bulk downloads within 120 days, and to create an advisory committee on improving public access to legislative information.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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