Digital Gov

Lawmakers look to modernize U.S. Code

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Two congressmen want to give the official record of U.S. laws a 21st century makeover.

Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Dave Brat (R-Va.) have reintroduced the Statutes at Large Modernization Act, a legislation reform bill that would make all federal laws ever passed available and publicly searchable on Congress.gov in an open, non-proprietary data format.

Currently, "if you want to go through and look up individual laws, you would have to pull them from each individual Congress" in which they were passed, Data Coalition Policy Director Christian Hoehner told FCW. "That's a lot of work."

The U.S. Code, the collection of the country's active laws, presently arranges laws by subject matter and is electronically searchable. However, it "doesn't capture statutes in the contexts by which they passed Congress," Hoehner explained. This means wholesale repeal measures, for example, are in the Statutes at Large but not in the U.S. Code and not electronically searchable.

Moulton and Brat's bill would list all federal statutes online in an electronically searchable format, as they were originally passed by Congress. This entails the inclusion of legislative aspects that are not usually found in the U.S. Code, such as repealed laws, their pre-amended language, private laws and annual appropriations or infrastructure projects.

Hoehner said the bill would create a complete "history of how U.S. law has changed throughout time."

Under this year's version, the Government Publishing Office would take the lead role to digitize the record. This is the biggest change from last year, when the National Archives and Records Administration headed the effort.

The bill specifically names -- among other public and private entities -- the Library of Congress, the Legislative Counsel of the Senate and the Law Revision Counsel as groups for GPO to consult in digitizing the historical record.

The bill includes an appropriations authorization of $5 million annually between fiscal years 2018 and 2022 to fund the modernization project.

The push to increase legislative transparency has received bipartisan support, as well as the public backing of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

Last June at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, Ryan endorsed "publishing all legislative measures in a standard format."

"That means enrolled measures, public laws, and statutes at large," he said. "We want this data to be as accessible as possible throughout the legislative cycle."

Separately, Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) and Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) reintroduced the Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary (OPEN) Government Data Act on March 29.

The bill would codify President Barack Obama's 2013 executive order to require federal agencies to publish their information to Data.gov in a non-proprietary, machine-readable format. It would also standardize open-data definitions, map federal datasets and ensure that CIOs have the authority to improve dataset quality.

Last Congress, the open government bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent in December after receiving a cost estimate of zero from the Congressional Budget Office. However, the bill never received a full House vote.

At a recent House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, members from both sides of the aisle expressed support for the measure.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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