New Proposal: Transform U.S. Statutes at Large into Open Data

November 18, 2015 9:00 AM | Data Coalition Team (Administrator)

You’ve probably never heard of the U.S. Statutes at Large, which yesterday became the centerpiece of Congress’ latest move toward open data in law and regulation.

This "permanent collection of laws and resolutions enacted during each session of Congress" isn’t as well known as the U.S. Code. While the Code organizes laws by subject matter (a process called “codification”), the Statutes at Large lists them sequentially, the way they were originally passed by Congress.

Two years ago, Congress started publishing the U.S. Code as open data, using a standardized XML structure called the U.S. Legislative Model (USLM).  That means software can understand the structure of the Code’s codified laws, connect citations electronically, and (eventually) redline proposed changes automatically.

How does it work? The USLM uses standardized electronic data elements to specify titles, sections, and paragraphs; identify citations; pinpoint dates of enactment and effectiveness; and express other information that previously had to be manually understood by humans reading the text.

The open data transformation hasn’t made its way to the Statutes at Large yet. But yesterday, Reps. Dave Brat (R-VA) and Seth Moulton (D-MA) proposed a bill to change that.

The Statutes at Large Modernization Act (H.R. 4006) directs the National Archives and Records Administration to publish an official open-data version of the Statutes at Large. The bill doesn’t specify what format should be used, but does direct the Archives to consult with all the other entities in the federal government that are involved in the legislative process, including the Congressional office that is already handling the U.S. Code. As long as the Archives does its homework, it should select the USLM – because that will make the Statutes at Large and the U.S. Code interoperable with one another.

(The bill names seven different offices and agencies, in addition to the Archives, that draft, compile, and publish laws. That helps explain why the government has modernized our laws so slowly.)

You’ll find the text of the Statutes at Large Modernization Act here, ironically in PDF. An XML version of the bill will be ready in a few days. (Our Coalition hopes someday Congress will natively draft its legislation in XML to begin with, instead of creating plain-text documents that are later turned into data.)

The Data Transparency Coalition endorsed the Statutes at Large Modernization Act because it takes a giant step toward our ultimate goal: all U.S. legislative and regulatory materials should be open data, instead of documents.

We hope Congress acts quickly on Reps. Brat and Moulton’s proposal. But Congress shouldn’t stop there: all the materials upstream of the Code and the Statutes at Large need to be transformed into open data too, using the same common format, the USLM. The clear next step will be for Congressional bills, resolutions, and amendments to be drafted and published as open data.



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