Extras - CIS' Congressional Compass: Legislative Research Made Easy

Susan Lewis-Somers is a reference librarian at the Willamette University Law Library, where she assists law students in the area of legislative research. She also authors the NetSense column for the WestPac News, in which she highlights Internet resources of interest to law librarians. She holds an M. Libr. from the University of Washington and a J.D. from Southwestern University and was previously a reference librarian at the Yale Law School Library and the Northwestern University Law Library. You may email Susan Lewis-Somers at slewis@willamette.edu.

In 1970, the Congressional Information Service (CIS) answered the prayers of librarians and congressional researchers everywhere when it introduced the CIS/Index to Congressional Publications and Public Laws. The CIS/Index is a series that indexes and abstracts all congressional committee documents from 1970, such as reports, hearings, documents and prints. This allows a user to readily find in one place references to all committee documents that relate to a particular subject, bill or committee, among other things. CIS delighted its audience further by publishing the full text of these documents on microfiche as an adjunct to its Index. (Previously, CIS had published various indexes to congressional documents from 1789-1969. These paper indexes had not compiled all committee documents together in one place, as the CIS/Index did, and had no full text microfiche accompaniment.)

In 1984, CIS began publishing its comprehensive Legislative Histories of U.S. Public Laws, which pulls together references to all congressional documents related to a particular public law. A much more limited version of this information had been available in the CIS/Index. When used with the full text microfiche documents, it became a relatively simple matter to pull together a comprehensive legislative history for a public law.

A few years later, CIS produced a CD-ROM version of the CIS/Index and Legislative Histories, called Congressional Masterfile 2 (CM2), which improved upon the paper series by allowing a user to search for committee documents over many Congresses, a task that had been somewhat laborious with the books. CIS also published Congressional Masterfile 1 (CM1), a CD-ROM version of its various indexes to congressional documents from 1789-1969.

Meanwhile, the online legal research service, Lexis-Nexis, has been providing the full text of congressional and other federal government documents for some time, as well. It has been the first place many of us have turned for the full text of 1990s bills, bill tracking reports, committee reports, hearings, the Congressional Record (since 1985), public laws, voting records and member information. In addition, Lexis-Nexis has offered the full text of the United States Code Service (USCS), the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and the Federal Register.

So it is with real excitement that many CIS devotees have signed up for the trial subscription to CIS' new web-based version of its CIS/Index and Legislative Histories (or CM2), called Congressional Compass. Congressional Compass combines the CIS/Index's and Legislative Histories' controlled vocabulary access to the abstracts and microfiche documents with Lexis-Nexis' keyword searching of full text documents (the full text of approximately 45 percent of congressional publications from 1995, with some dating back to 1988, according to CIS). This collaboration came about as a result of Reed Elsevier's purchase of CIS and Lexis-Nexis a few years ago.

With its latest revisions to Congressional Compass at the end of April 1997, CIS hasn't disappointed. (In fact, its revisions address many of my earlier criticisms.) CIS has organized the information contained in Congressional Compass into logical categories on its main page. I would have placed the Overview category, which lays out the overall organization at a glance, at the top of the list, instead of Congressional Publications, which is a subset of Overview. I find it much easier to launch my research from Overview, where I can scan the types of documents I might want to search.

Overview offers the categories Congressional Publications, which includes the CIS/Index, Legislative Histories and full text congressional documents; Bills, Laws and Regulations; Members and Committees; Inside Washington, which offers the National Journal and CongressDaily; Hot Topics; Other Links; and Help. The full text of public laws and the US Code are not yet available in the Bills, Laws and Regulations category. The Hot Topics category has nothing in its subcategory Hot Topics but does contain Hot Bills, a listing of newsworthy bills that contains compilations of all related bills and bill tracking reports. A CIS representative says that CIS expects the public laws, US Code (to be updated monthly) and the Hot Topics materials to be available by Summer 1997.

The search forms available on Congressional Compass are user-friendly and familiar to anyone who has used web-based search forms. Each is accompanied by elementary help information that is relevant to the particular form and that must be read to understand the extent of each search form's capabilities.

A user looking for congressional committee documents may choose one of two approaches: 1) she may search the CIS/Index, primarily by subject, title, bill number, witness name, committee, and document number, and Legislative Histories by keyword, title, bill number, public law number and Statutes at Large citation or 2) she may more directly search the full text of a selection of these documents, primarily by keyword, witness name, committee and Congress. Those forms that provide keyword searching capability allow the use of simple boolean connectors and word truncation. The help information lays out the boolean search options with simplicity.

Unfortunately, the keyword searching option for full text committee documents has a major pitfall: it does not find all documents that contain a user's keyword, but only those documents in which the keyword appears in the title or at least five times in the body of the document. This is a major limitation to the usefulness of keyword searching that does not exist on Lexis-Nexis; the unwary are likely to miss relevant documents. Why not let the user determine what's relevant? A CIS representative says that CIS will do away with this keyword search limitation before long.

Another limitation for anyone searching these full text materials for reports, prints, documents and hearings is that there is no way to search for these committee documents by document number, as a user may do when searching for them in the CIS/Index or when searching the full text on Lexis-Nexis. A keyword search won't find documents by number because the number normally doesn't appear in the title or at least five times in the body.

In spite of these search limitations, the documents retrieved via these searches are very useful, indeed. The abstracts to recent committee publications and the legislative histories for recent public laws may provide hypertext links to the full text of bills (from 1989 and updated daily), bill tracking reports (from 1989 and updated daily), committee documents (reports from 1990, selected abridged hearings from 1988, documents from 1995 and 15% of prints from 1996) and the Congressional Record (from 1985 and updated daily). Legislative histories and abstracts without full text links provide the CIS accession numbers to the full text of all documents on microfiche, with a customized referral to the location in the user's library where the microfiche may be found.

The full text materials available on Congressional Compass (primarily from Lexis-Nexis files) provide full text content beyond that found in the microfiche that accompanies the CIS/Index. In addition to congressional committee documents, a user may retrieve the full text of the Congressional Record, the CFR (updated weekly), the Federal Register (from 1980 and updated daily), current reports and other information on members of Congress and its committees, current House and Senate rules, and the publications National Journal (from 1977 and updated weekly) and CongressDaily (from 1991 and updated twice daily).

Congressional Compass also offers a user thorough background information about the congressional process and the documents it produces, with hypertext links to a legislative glossary and a chart on how a bill becomes a law. This information is authoritative and contains handy tips for researchers.

Congressional Compass provides plenty of citation help for the documents a user retrieves; unfortunately it ignores the needs of law researchers, who must use The Bluebook citation rules, and not the otherwise admirable citation guide that the Congressional Compass citation rules are based on. In fact, these citation rules could easily mislead law students and other law researchers who are required to use The Bluebook rules. CIS might have been better advised to include a cautionary note for law researchers to consult The Bluebook, had it included a few more law librarians in its Congressional Compass Design Advisory Group, which is comprised of 13 librarians, only one of whom is a law librarian, according to its acknowledgements.

Nevertheless, Congressional Compass is an impressive undertaking by CIS that will be attractive to any library reliant on the CIS/Index or CM2. Its search forms are very user-friendly and reassuring to anyone who has been intimidated by the CIS/Index system and the DOS-based CM2. It might be the key to creating more self-confident and independent congressional researchers. It may also provide a library without access to Lexis-Nexis with convenient access to the full text of many congressional documents for the first time.

Still, it is not clear that Congressional Compass will be immediately attractive to those libraries that already have flat-rate Lexis-Nexis subscriptions. The Legislative Histories and the full text materials offered by Congressional Compass are available on Lexis-Nexis, which provides much more flexible and comprehensive search options, albeit in a less user-friendly format. Furthermore, many, though not all, of the more recent full text documents that Congressional Compass offers can be found on the Internet through Thomas and GPO Access.

Finally, those libraries that also have CM1 will have to rely on the CD-ROM for several more years. A CIS representative says that it is unlikely to incorporate the 1789-1969 congressional documents found on CM1 into Congressional Compass until at least 1999.

CIS allows campus networking and bases its cost on the number of students at an institution; law libraries will apparently pay less for their part in a campus-wide networked Congressional Compass than they would with a law library-only subscription. CIS claims to have various pricing options available for public and government libraries, as well.