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What Congress could learn from farting phones

With the Senate inching ever closer to passing health care reform legislation, unless you’re working on the Hill or have a few dozen hours to dig through THOMAS to piece together what the most recent version of the health reform legislation actually does, you’re out of luck if you actually have the gall to want to read it.

There’s a November 19 version of the available from the previous link (H.R. 3590.AS), but you need to look at the “Bill summary and status file” (specifically, “All Congressional Actions with Amendments”) to see what has happened to the multiple amendments that Thomas reports have been made to the bill. Then you’ll have to manually insert the adopted amendments into the Nov. 19 text yourself and see what you can figure out has been done. There’s no freely available unified text as of this writing. Some commercial services may have independently produced unified text, but I don’t subscribe to any of those—nor should I have to to find out what my Congress is doing.

Given that Congress actually uses computers now (at least, that’s the rumor), it is thoroughly shameful that we, for whom the Representatives and Senators work, cannot actually see what they are doing until well after they’ve done it—a major problem in a Republic where the Representatives and Senators are supposed to represent our interests. It is also highly doubtful that the Representatives or Senators can see what they are doing if this is the system they are actually using to keep track of things. Fortunately, there is software—much of it free—that could help.

It is no coincidence that we speak of computer “code” just as we speak of legal “code”. Each is a set of relatively arcane instructions to a computer (silicon or human, respectively) to perform or not perform a certain set of actions within a defined framework. Each is typically comprised of complexly interconnected elements, yet remains readable and (somewhat) intelligible to experts in their respective fields.

Typically, when one speaks of human-readable computer code, one is describing “source code”, that is, a human-readable equivalent of what a programmer intends for a computer to do. Once the code is “compiled” for a particular type of microchip, a computer can run it. For example, multiple developers can work on a program to make an iPhone simulate flatulence. The program is split into different sections, and the developers can revise these sections, tracking each revision along the way, debating changes, and, in some cases, letting anyone in the world track progress on the developing source code through a public website. Once the code is complete, it is compiled, and can be used by an iPhone to everyone’s juvenile delight.

Similarly, legislation is “source code” that must be “compiled” (either into the Statutes at Large or in the U.S. Code, or both) after its passage to be applied (“run”) by the legal system (judges, lawyers, police, etc.). However, it is put together in person (for the most part), on paper (in large part), then transcribed into a computer system that (at least to the general public) seemingly simulates paper in many ways. Changes are rarely integrated in real time, instead, they are often posted as monolithic “amendments” (if the amendments are posted at all) and not integrated into a “live” version of the text. Typically, with complex legislation, its full text is not available until after it has been passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the President—too late for mere mortal citizens to do anything about it (e.g., talk to their Representatives or Senators).

The analogy is not as useful when taking it much further, so let’s stop there for the moment and get to the point:

The same free software that people can use to collaboratively make their phones fart could be used to draft complex legislation and share it—in real time—with the general public.

There is a trove of free, (relatively) easy to use software that is designed to track the minutest of changes to extraordinarily complex documents and share those changes—including all the history back to the original text—with the entire world. Git, CVS, subversion, Mercurial, take your pick.

Although THOMAS is an incredible resource, it still largely catalogues information as if it were written on vellum parchment with quills, bound together with catgut, horsehide glue, and a calfskin cover. It does give one some appreciation for the complexity of what Congress does, but as as legislation and the legislative process grow increasingly complex, THOMAS’s utility as a tool to extract meaningful information decreases dramatically. Hopefully THOMAS will git (or some equivalent) with the program soon.

© 2009 Alex M. Hendler. All Rights Reserved.

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