House leaders and the Government Printing Office are taking a significant step forward for increasing transparency in government by making it possible for interested citizens to bulk download legislation in XML format.
From a technological perspective, the move isn't a big deal, but, as the Sunlight Foundation's Daniel Schuman explains, it is a milestone for people who want to read legislation and obtain other legislative information without having to be fluent in a computer programming language.
"Starting with the technology, the public is already able to download legislation from GPO in XML format (and has been able to for all legislation since the 111th Congress)," Schuman said. "Prior to today's announcement, users who wanted to access this legislation systematically would have to write a short program to search through hundreds of pages to find the files.
"Now users can skip this step and download the information in one place, here. This is a trivial difference to a programmer, and no new information was released, but it has significant policy implications."
Schuman said the decision announced yesterday is the latest evidence that transpartisanship is alive and well in Congress, at least on transparency issues in the House: "Public access is a bipartisan issue, with Republicans John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Darrell Issa, and Dan Lungren fighting side-by-side with Democrats Steny Hoyer, Mike Honda, and Mike Quigley."
Jim Harper of the Cato Institute points to another reason why an otherwise obscure announcement in the nation's capital could have far-reaching consequences:
"I believe the public has an Internet-fueled expectation that they should understand what happens in Congress. It's one explanation for rock-bottom esteem for government in opinion polls. Access to good data help produce better public understanding of what goes on in Washington and also, I believe, more felicitous policy outcomes--not only reduced demand for government, but better administered government in the areas the public wants it."
Recalling former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's infamous comment about passage of Obamacare, Harper added that "if you're a reader of a certain partisan bent, you might appreciate the idea that the era of passing bills to find out what's in them will end."