26th March 2012


posted by saurabh in Government, Voting |

Let’s imagine exposing legislation to the scrutiny of the Internet.

I don’t mean that any member of the public could propose new bill text; that would still be the purview of individual legislators. But when they submit legislation, it shows up in a “Recent Changes” style docket. Any member of the public could view it. They could highlight pieces of it by voting it up or down. They could attach explanatory comments to the text. There could be ways for people to directly register their approval or disapproval of particular portions of the text. There could also be indirect ways for you to register your approval, as mediated by trusted experts: for example, the Sierra Club could run a subscription service that would annotate bill text for me, highlighting the portions of text they find good, and worth supporting, or extremely distressing and probably worth fighting. I could subscribe to a number of groups that maintained such lists; smaller groups could focus on narrower issues, like just abortion, or just research funding for physicists. I could weight the contributions of such groups and get a picture of how much they are in agreement or disagreement; I could identify places of conflict in my set of political views and perhaps adjust them. In the aggregate, I could get a picture of how often bill text agreed or disagreed with my positions. I could get a picture of how often my Congressperson voted against what I wanted, and in what specific ways. We could express ourselves to our legislators as a community.

Such a tool has a few nice features: first, if it were visible, it would give advocacy groups a better way to engage with voters and legislators; it would give them a clearer role in the political process, as a way to aggregate the voices of disparate constituencies. The modern mechanism requires money; this would require some as well, but the volume of bill text is not tremendous, and individual organizations could probably make a contribution more cheaply than they could buy the support of a legislator, where they risk merely being outbid by wealthier interests. Second, it is democratic; an organization with a small staff might succeed in making a significant contribution to the political process merely by dint of a large number of subscribers. Third, it reduces the role of the legislator to a helpless automaton. There is really no reason why, if such a system accurately reflects the desire of your constituents, a legislator should vote against it. Therefore, there is really no reason why you should reelect a legislator who continually misrepresents you.

Representing political viewpoints as a pastiche of intersecting interests is definitely the way modern politics already functions; individual interest groups are already engaging legislators on behalf of the voters. Currently they do this by direct bribery, which means the function of voting is essentially null; money determines who wins elections, and thus determines the course of voting. But even in a best case, voting for a single individual forces a narrowing of political choice and power; the legislator has little or no information about what the voters want, and the voters have no simple, efficient to present it, and their only mechanism of power is the vague hope that the person they are electing will manage to represent them accurately over the next few years. If the legislator’s vote is merely a binary filter on a much more complex representation of individual’s political interests (I agree with Greenpeace, CEPR, Global Exchange, Atheists of America, etc. in that order; you agree with Grover Norquist, the Heritage Foundation, the NRA, etc.), it broadens the efficacy of the democratic function.

Also, this system would be much harder to buy. While it’s possible that I might be suckered into subscribing to the ideas of a group that I don’t in fact agree with, it’s much easier for me to trust individual groups when their advocacy is passive, and their record is open to examination and recommendation.

Finally: since this is merely an annotation of publicly-available bill text available at places like thomas.loc.gov, it requires no legal adjustments to be brought into place. Someone could create such a site tomorrow.

This is only one possible way we might be better utilizing the radical democratization of the Internet.

There are currently 5 responses to “WikiLegislation”

  1. 1 On March 27th, 2012, Dan Keshet said:

    There are, of course, already people for most or all those organizations (Greenpeace, CEPR, Global Exchange, NRA, etc.) employed to scour new legislation for issues of interest to them. This could be a great jumping-off point for such a tool; start by making it easier and easier for these people to use, both to find legislation, annotate it, and inform others of it, and then gradually as the service gets better, it will be easier for new people to do the same.

    I’m not sure about the name, though; you’re not talking about actually changing legislation so much as displaying it with annotations, right?

    I think one of the most useful features could be something that shows for a bill that reads something like “strike paragraph 2 of section 14 of Federal code 571.14.2” what that actually does.

  2. 2 On March 28th, 2012, saurabh said:

    That was a name for the post, rather than a name for the system. I agree a better name is needed. Something like SuperWhizBangYouGovWatcher, maybe?

    Yeah, I thought about the problem of how bills are written – they’re essentially a diff on the US code, and a tool to let you view the bill text that way (as a diff, with the context) would be pretty damn useful, I think, just by itself.

  3. 3 On March 29th, 2012, Dan Keshet said:

    http://www.opencongress.org/ and http://www.opencongress.org/api seem like they’ve done part of the work. They’ve written APIs for returning data about bills in XML format, including information on positions taken by organizations.

  4. 4 On March 29th, 2012, saurabh said:

    Hmm, it’s a start, although it’s not cool enough – it doesn’t make it that easy to actually crawl around in the bill text itself; something that, say, lets you see which sections of the code are affected by the bill, what their subjects are, what change they make, etc., and let you attach comments to particular line items. Annotations around the bill are useful, but annotations OF the bill, that help you read and parse the significance of the text itself, would be better.

  5. 5 On March 29th, 2012, Dan Keshet said:

    Yeah, I just didn’t know if it would be easier to build on top of opencongress or whatever API the government provides.

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