On Friday, there was a signal that might change, as the GOP-led House moved toward releasing an unprecedented trove of data on its doings.
On a 307 to 102 vote, the House created a task force to study speeding up the release of data in the user-friendly XML format. That release is still a good distance away: The task force must answer members’ questions about whether releasing congressional data could lead to fake bills or fake speeches, doctored up online.
But for a legislature that has closely guarded its data, this was a big step. In a statement, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans called it “the moment lawmakers agree to free legislative information from the technical limits of years past.”
For the unique species of geek who wants to slice up Congress’s data, this is the sandbox that has long been awaited. What if somebody built an app to rate congressmen like restaurants? Others might follow the Angie’s List model and treat them like contractors: Which representative gets the most bills passed? Who talks a lot but gets the least done?
Or an app might treat lawmakers like potential blind dates, creating an eHarmony equivalent for people looking for just the right legislator to send a donation to. Just type in how you would have voted on a set of bills, and it could search the real votes to find your best match in Congress.
The libertarian Cato Institute is already working to digitally “tag” spending amounts in legislation so that a user can search for every bill that would spend more than $10 million.
The data — which are currently stored on a clumsy, impenetrable Library of Congress site known as Thomas — could in the new format be the raw material for a Yelp for Congress, a way for modern users to evaluate lawmakers with the same kind of crowdsourced help that they use to evaluate lunch.
Which means it could be something that Congress eventually will regret.
“What could you do if you had an overview of every committee appearance by a particular witness over the last five years?” said Thomas Bruce, a professor at Cornell Law School. He thought more: What if witnesses could be checked for their political leanings or their campaign contributions? What would that say about the reliability of the advice Congress is getting?
Bruce said the House was smart to realize that it couldn’t hold on to this information forever, since others are already inventing ways to compile it themselves. “This really is a teen-sex problem,” he said. “Your kid is either going to find out from you or from the other kids.”