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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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