Free THOMAS!

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Especially for a voluble group of self-proclaimed believers that the private sector can do better than government, the House Appropriations Committee looks mightily like it's trying to protect a government monopoly.

At issue is bulk downloads of XML files generated by the Library of Congress to track legislative downloads. The library uses the data as the back end of the THOMAS legislation tracking website. Transparency and good government groups say, rightly, that THOMAS has failed to keep up with developments in web technology and that they could do a better job in presenting the data.

Arguably, transparency groups already do better, with websites such as opencongress.org or govtrack.us. According to an estimate by the Sunlight Foundation, for every person who goes directly to THOMAS, at least two go to a third-party congressional tracking website.

However, those websites cobble together legislative data by scraping THOMAS's front end, a process that's time-consuming, imperfect, costly and ultimately unnecessary. Why should they have to resort to web scrapping when we're in the midst of a push to make publically available government data sets precisely in order to encourage third party web- and app-development of government data?

Unfortunately, the House Appropriations Committee Republicans have pushed language into the report accompanying their May 31 markup of the legislative branch fiscal 2013 appropriations bill that would require a task force to further study the matter.

I allow that enabling bulk downloads would require a modicum of preparation; it's not as simple as turning a faucet. But the issues that the task force would study--including an "alternative that can enhance congressional openness and transparency without relying on bulk data downloads in XML" seems meant to indefinitely postpone bulk downloading rather than make it a reality. The fact that the task force would have no deadline for reporting and the fact that there was a similar task force in 2008 (and no bulk downloading today) combine to create this question: What has House Appropriations got against creating competition to THOMAS?

One explanation is that the value of government monopoly is surprisingly relative in those who spend a lot of time railing against it. When it comes time to crack their own, they suddenly backtrack. They don't like it when Schumpeter's gale blows in their direction? - Dave