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Free the House Health Care Bill!

October 30, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The Democratic leadership in the House has pledged to post their final health care bill online at least 72 hours before beginning debate. That’s a good thing — we here at OpenCongress are fully supportive of efforts by Congress to get information online and available for public review and comment as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, at 10:05 am ET, the Democrats posted their bill on the House Rules Committee website as a 1990-page PDF file.

Presumably, that’s when Democrats’ 72-hour count down officially began. And technically, it’s true — the bill was made available at that time for the public to download and read. According to Chris Bowers of Open Left, Rep. Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] said yesterday on a conference call with progressive bloggers that by 2:45 p.m. ET the bill had already been downloaded 8.2 million times.

All those downloads might be good for Adobe, but is it really good for democracy? I think not.

If Congress wants to be more open and transparent, they needs to have higher standards for releasing public information. Any information that is considered “public” should be posted online in a format that is open and machine readable so it’s available for anyone to use however they want to. In their efforts to make bills public before votes, Congress should follow these 8 principles of open government data as closely as possible.

If we accept anything less, we’re setting a precedent that sells short the potential of the internet to improve legislation, combat corruption and make government more relevant.

Case in point: We’re now 28 hours into the 72-hour count down for the new House health care bill and it still only exists in PDF. The government has yet to print the bill and release it online in HTML through the Government Printing Office so that government transparency sites like GovTrack, Washington Watch and OpenCongress can make it available for public comment, crowd-sourced analysis and discussion across the internet with citations to the specific provisions. [UPDATE: GPO finally printed the bill while this post was being written]

If you’re skeptical about the difference it makes to have bill information available in an open format, I strongly urge you to take a look at this amazing work from thousands of people on the OpenCongress bill text page for the original health care bill who have collaborated section-by-section to figure out what’s in it and how it works. On almost every section in the 1,500+ page bill, people have created comment threads to work together on parsing the legalese and making the bill’s provisions more easily understood for everyone. Throughout the month of August, nearly 40,000 people per day came to view that page to gain a better understanding of the bill. Furthermore, hundreds of bloggers used the OpenCongress bill text permalinking tool to tie their writing about the bill’s provisions to the specific sections of the actual legislative text. And townhall attendees used it to help bring informed discussions to the meetings as “a substitute for yelling”

The original health care bill has been available in an open format since the middle of July. It’s been a tremendous public resource for the health care debate. The new health care bill, however, might get less than 48 hours in this format before it is debated by the House. Needless to say, the difference in the public’s involvement between the old health care bill (available in open format for months) and the new health care bill (available in open format for less than 48 hours) will be stark.

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Comments

  • Anonymous 10/30/2009 11:12am

    I’ll take the pdf’s. H.R.3200 is completely unusable on this site. The browser stops responding. If you let it set for half an hour it will finish, but hit page down, or try to use the scroll bar, the page stops responding. At least with a pdf, the reader is free, it’s scrollable and searchable and the text is locked down for Read-Only. The bills at the Library of Congress site are pretty easy to use. http://thomas.loc.gov/

  • Comm_reply
    Anonymous 10/30/2009 11:21am

    This is more a criticism of the bill then it is of opencongress. There is no need to release a bill which can choke a full grown rhinoceros. There are many simple changes which could be made to health care in this country which would improve the situation, simplify the law, and which could be expressed in 30 pages or less. Congress could attack these problems first, rather than lobbing Weapons of Mass Diction at citizens for no apparent reason.

  • Anonymous 10/30/2009 11:16am

    Maybe this site could provide some minimum requirements or special settings for viewing the bills here? Were “40,000 people per day” able to actually use it, or is that just the number of hits?

  • Anonymous 10/30/2009 11:20am
    Link Reply
    + -2

    I am so tired of being lied to by this Congress and President Obama! Not only will the health Care Bill be more expensive than thought AND raise our premiums, it will also include a Public Option and an extermination clause for Senior Citizens! No longer is America a Free Country, we are being railroaded into a form of Government which sees nothing wrong in Killing the elderly when they require too much care, any more than they see anything wrong in Killing an unborn child! This is what we have become, Shame On Us! Liars and Charlatians! How dare they go agaist public opinion, we have said this is not a good idea,yet they continue!! AND WHO DO THEY WORK FOR?? THE AMERICAN PEOPLE,THAT IS WHO! LISTEN TO “WE THE PEOPLE”! May God have mercy on all of you!

  • Comm_reply
    Anonymous 10/30/2009 11:52am

    And may you one day see the madness in your own writing. Exterminations of senior citizens, only someone who has given into delusions of mad men and conspiracies could truthfully believe something so atrocious and patently false. It is easy to deliver blanket statements and half-truths, but they are not true.

    Read the bill. Don’t listen to cherry-picked highlights taken out of context and designer arguments meant to deceive the American people.

  • kmad 10/30/2009 12:44pm

    Ok, you have access to the bill. Please find for me the “extermination clause for Senior Citizens.” Oh, and public opinion supports the public option. And if you’re so concerned about killing children, please note this story: Lack of health care led to 17,000 US child deaths http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20091029/hl_afp/healthuschildren_20091029152252 .

  • Anonymous 10/30/2009 1:15pm
    Link Reply
    + -2

    PDF is an open standard. It has published documentation, and is readable on almost any desktop operating system.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portable_Document_Format

    As an open source advocate I would agree that more open document formats are needed (What’s wrong with HTML?) But, my pragmatic side would argue that they are at least publishing in an open format in a somewhat reasonable amount of time.

  • Anonymous 10/30/2009 1:47pm
    Link Reply
    + -1

    Everything is rigged, GPO states at 3:37PM PT,

    “The system is down for routine maintenance. Please try again later.

    We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

    Yeah right.

  • bmc 10/30/2009 1:49pm
    Link Reply
    + -2

    Democracy and capitalism is a volatile mixture but it works; on the other hand, socialized medicine is a death march.

  • LucasFoxx 10/30/2009 5:14pm

    “Is it really good for democracy?” Yeah, Donny, it is. It’s Complete, Primary, Timely, Accessible, Non-discriminatory, and License-free for the general public. If you have internet access, you can get it and read it.

    I appreciate what you are trying to do with this site. But you’re letting the “potential of the internet” lead you a little ahead of yourself with Machine processable and Non-proprietary. I fully support your goal of making as much minable data available in non-proprietary formats as timely as possible for your purposes of “crowd-sourced analysis.” But larger bills like H.R. 3200 are unusable on this site to me, as well. I don’t mind waiting for you to do what you do to make whatever it does do it. What you have is very useful. But we did get the bill faster than a covered wagon on an 8 million post route; and it was free and legible.

  • Mitrebox 10/31/2009 4:29am

    Good for you. WE NEED A PLAIN TEXT VERSION. I would dearly love to write some Perl, or PHP script to search and sort through the document. As of yet, I’ve spent three days trying to download it on a slow modem connection and haven’t been able to view it. The PDF file format is not democracy as I know it.

  • dgrace3 11/02/2009 6:28am
    Taxing the extra rich is brilliant, it finally puts some responsiblity on those who have taken more than enough. But maybe those who have been honest and giving deserve a break? Capitalism is a concern? Corporations heads/business owners/wealthy who squeeze every last dime out of their employees and maintain the typical “I deserve all of the profit” and “these people come to work for minimum wage because they want to” thinking that is rampant in our country. And has contributed just as much to the economic troubles we face today as say hiring illegal aliens or corruption.
  • Comm_reply
    justamick 11/02/2009 6:42am

    I used to think that increased taxes for the rich was a good idea. Then I started thinking that we should all have an equal part in paying for running this country?

    Someone used this analogy to explain the idea to me. You, who makes 120k/year, and I, who makes 35K/year, both go to the same car dealership. We both decided that we want the same model/year of vehicle. But because you make 120k/year you have to pay 25k for the vehicle while I have to pay only 15k for the exact same vehicle. How is that fair? It really isnt.

    Also, It is very short sighted to assert that every “rich” person is an arrogant self serving jerk that cares only for filling their coffers. I think you’re views may be skewed by corporate horror stories and or a personal experience in a company that you may have once worked for. One two or even 10 companys that have done this or act the way you are describing doesnt mean that ALL company owners/ CEOs are a like that and care nothing for the “little guy”.

  • becauseican 10/18/2011 3:09pm

    Are you kidding me ?! Releasing a 1,990 page bill 72 hours before debate is to begin ? How many of us can read a 500 page novel in 72 hours, let alone a 1,990 page bill with all that legalese in 72 hours ?!!? Knowledge is power, and clearly the ones with the power are the ones who put this bil together !
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