Features – Monitoring Congress: A Revolution in Access

Access to and knowledge of the legislative process further enhances the development and respect for democracy.

Paul Jenks, GalleryWatch.com

Congressional research and monitoring has seen a major transformation over the past two decades, a transformation from personal relationships on the Hill and volumes of printed books to online searching, notification and additional documents that previously were the most sought after documents in Washington, DC. The availability of information has been a revolution of access to the legislature and its process.

A legislative researcher or lobbyist trying to keep track of actions in Congress in the early 1980s had one resource: the daily (when in session) Congressional Record. Everyone in Washington, DC whose job it was to monitor or research Congress had this publication on his or her desk. It was the only reliable source detailing everything that happened in Congress the previous day. Today, this publication is rarely seen on desks in Washington, DC; I have not seen it in print in many years. It still exists, but technology, Congress, and lobbyists have moved into new realms.

Replacing the printed Congressional Record took many steps, from simple indexing of legislation in the late 1970s to delivering “The Record” and full text of legislation and committee reports online in the 1980s. Prior to this time, legislative monitoring was exclusively a personal affair, relying on relationships and a physical presence in the Capitol to retrieve bill text and learn of changes and actions.

Online monitoring revolutionized the process not only of following legislation, but the process of legislating itself, enabling people and organizations either outside of the grounds of the Capitol or without personal relationships within it, to follow the activities of Congress. A vast increase in advocacy organizations, pressing their issues before Congress, has followed. A quick look at the number and type of organizations lobbying Congress in the 1970s compared with the same list today would clearly illustrate this point.

As legislative documents were put online, the process relied on a single source, the Government Printing Office (GPO). The GPO is Congress’ printer, printing Federal legislation and the Congressional Record. The first online legislative service, Legi-Slate, located its offices in Washington, DC right across the street from the GPO to speed the process of transforming the printed documents into online documents. Other online companies entered the market, including Congressional Quarterly.

These official publications had limitations; everyone always had to wait for the printing of the document by the GPO. Also, not all documents were printed by the GPO. Online subscribers were happy to have the new features of searching for words in the text of a bill, regular notification of new materials, even indexing of items for retrieving even more minute aspects of legislation. Congress itself added to the movement online with THOMAS, a web service of the Library of Congress. This was progress.

Bills were introduced and referred to a Committee, the text often was printed in the Congressional Record for the next business day, if possible, and a separate printing of the bill text was available usually a few days later. Committee reports generally followed the same procedure but a separate printing could be delayed even longer. A new version of the bill would be printed as each chamber moved on a piece of legislation. Changes in committee would become evident in the bill as it passed the chamber. Only these “official” publications were available to subscribers of online services or to web browsers on Thomas.

From the very beginning, online monitoring of Congress had some glaring limitations. These were readily admitted at the time, but the real improvement provided by online monitoring was a major improvement over the personal and newspaper orientation of the recent past. A sort of online void existed between the types of materials provided by online sources and other types of materials that were relevant and essential to the legislative process. The focus for people who seriously needed to monitor Congress shifted to the types of materials they always attempted to collect but was either never officially printed by Congress itself or was delayed in the GPO printing process.

Legi-Slate started to fill some of the holes in legislative monitoring. In the early 1990s it began sending reporters to every single Markup session. Recording events and changes to legislation. Some of Legi-Slate’ innovations have been lost as the result of technology and economics. Detailed subject indexing and a current update of the US Code are some of the items no longer provided. Legi-Slate itself was a victim of the Year 2000 issue and had to close in 1999.

Here is a typical list of documents that were always outside the official publication realm:

  • Drafts of bills and amendments
  • Letters to and from administration officials and Members of Congress
  • Text of amendments as they pass out of committee and before they are incorporated into the next version of the bill.
  • Press releases (Member, Senator and Committees)
  • Staff summaries, reports, and White Papers from committee staff
  • The Chairman’s mark, the bill the chairman of a committee uses as the basis of the bill as it enters a Markup Session
  • Reporting on what happened in a markup session
  • Transcripts of testimony, either prepared or verbatim of Congressional hearings.
  • GAO, CBO, and CRS Reports, all of which usually are the result of specific Congressional inquiries and requests.

News organizations and reporters have always relied on these types of documents as their primary sources for their reporting and analysis. Access to these additional materials now provides the researcher with essentially the reporter’s notebook. Sophisticated lobbyists have relied on them more than the normal official printing to monitor their issues. The problem is there was no timely and reliable source for these items, it was always (and to some extent, still is) a hit or miss proposition.

Upstart GalleryWatch, an online service created in 2000 after Legi-Slate’s demise, began its mission of not only providing the basic official publications but recording bill actions as they happen and finally beginning to fill-in the online void of additional documents. These materials could be retrieved and posted online in a timely and effective fashion. Just as online sources of official Congressional information transformed Congressional monitoring, the real-time access of additional types of materials continues this transformation.

Additional documents provide a different perspective on legislation. A bill at face value in official documents may look like it is languishing in Committee; it may actually be moving along in other ways. Congressional letters, Agency reports, Committee analysis, draft amendments, and press releases may signal life in something the process thinks is stalled.

Adding drafts of bills, Chairman’s marks, and legislative texts of amendments as they happen has opened up the legislative process even further than the events of the early 1980s. Letters from members to the administration have become a new method of marshalling support (or opposition) to issues. The Chairman’s mark, previously the most closely guarded document on the Hill, is increasingly available on GalleryWatch. CBO, GAO, OMB, and now CRS reports are also online. The breadth of information on Congress that has become available over the past 20 years has radically changed the process from an insider’s exclusive world to a world available to anyone on the Internet. Researchers, lobbyists, interest groups and common citizens can now research and monitor the real-time actions of Congress in ways unfathomable at the beginning of the Internet age.

As savvy researchers now have access to many iterations of legislative materials as the documents themselves evolve, the trend is that they are relying less on traditional publications to interpret events for them and instead are reading the documents throughout the process to finalization. The result is that professionals are making their own assessments. Some users are analyzing documents and assessing the value directly, and are by-passing interpretation and commentary by the press. Now that researchers have access to more of these traditionally hard-to-find documents, their ability to make value assessments directly is that much more prevalent.

Following a bill used to mean your physical presence in the Capitol. Online access changed the process but specific information required special access. A bill may be moving forward and the official documents did provide clues to the fact. Additional materials from the primary sources now and provide clues to an online researcher of movement and action on measures previously considered dead. The revolution of access to Congressional materials continues. As new materials become readily available new avenues will certainly open. Timeliness of materials will be enhanced too, today comments made on the floor can be instantly telegraphed to your email, for example. The revolution of access to Congressional materials has created real changes in the democratic process and advantages (and perhaps disadvantages) for our democratic system.

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