November 24, 2004

Bill Labs, or, A Modest Proposal for Using the Net to Foster Legistlative Transparency

There are a lot of memorable scenes in the film Fahrenheit 9/11, but one that stands out, oddly perhaps, for me, is the sequence with Michael Moore interviewing Representative John Conyers regarding the PATRIOT Act.

That's the scene where Conyers said, "Sit down, my son. We don't read most of the bills."

Nor, I suspect, do they write them. That, I suspect, is left to lobbyists for the most part.

And now in the news is this new $388 billion spending bill, 3,300 pages long, as reported all over (see Google News links here).

A quote from a Seattle Times article from today:

Lawmakers from both parties who approved the $388 billion package last weekend set aside plenty of money for projects certain to sow goodwill in their home districts.

The time-honored practice flourished despite the ballooning deficit, less money for federal programs and rising unease about how government will finance the futures of Medicare and Social Security.

For instance, there was $1 million for the Norwegian American Foundation in Seattle, $50,000 to control Missouri's wild-hog problem and $4 million for the International Fertilizer Development Center in Alabama.

There's little mystery about why such spending survives in good times or bad.

"They do it because they can get away with it; they do it because it's the thing that allows them to do a good press release back home and be able to say to folks, 'I'm delivering something for you,' " said Frank Clemente, a spokesman for the private watchdog group Public Citizen.

When Bush took office, he promised to cut pet projects from the federal budget, but the president has yet to veto a spending bill. He is expected to sign the new plan.

Time for a "BILL LABS"?
Perhaps it's time to apply the Network Effect to analysis of bills being proposed in Congress. I marvel at the continued growth of WikiPedia and its related properties, and I think, how could we harness the energy that the greater Web community has put into WikiPedia, to study, analyze, and ask questions about the bills that our legislators push through Congress?

Imagine a "BillLabs.org", a forensic laboratory for bills as it were, where as soon as the text of a bill is published in Congress, it gets placed on the "examiner's table" of billlabs.org. Only, this is no ordinary table. And it's no ordinary examiner. It is the great eye of the American people, where thousands of people can pore over the document, tagging various sections with keywords (think: Flickr for legislation!), tagging each provision with a state or voting district (where is the money going), and quickly producing an executive summary of the bill based upon the analysis of thousands or even millions of people.

What's especially intriguing to me is the potential for near-real-time analysis of bills, with summary reports coming out in RSS feeds within hours (minutes?) of a bill's introduction.

You might say, isn't holding our representatives accountable the job of, oh, the press? One would think. But the press has let us down. The days of Woodward and Bernstein have passed. Would the American people be any worse off if a million amateur Woodward and Bernsteins had a tool to dissect bills proposed by the legislature, and expose the pork, the favors, the exessive spending, the frivolous allocations of funds to pet projects? Not to mention near-real-time forensic analysis of the PATRIOT Acts, DMCA's, INDUCE Acts, and other marvels.

I suspect if such a tool were available on the Web, and it were put to good use, two things would happen: 1) a lot more people would be aware of exactly what's going on in Washington, and 2) the labs' findings would wind up being covered by the media. And maybe all that would have a positive effect. Just maybe?

Posted by brian at November 24, 2004 07:41 AM

Comments

Have you seen Screenscraping the Senate: http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2004/09/01/hack-congress.html by Paul Ford http://www.xml.com/pub/au/192 of http://www.ftrain.com/

Posted by: Joe Crawford at November 24, 2004 11:31 AM

There are two things that no human should ever watch being made: sausage and laws

Posted by: levin at November 24, 2004 12:58 PM

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