On Legislative Collaboration and Version Control
John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation writes:
We often are confronted with the idea of legislation being written and tracked online through new tools, whether it’s Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk, or a long, long list of experiments and pilot projects (including Sunlight’s PublicMarkup.org and Rep. Issa’s MADISON) designed to give citizens a new view and voice in the production of legislation.
Proponents of applying version control systems to law have a powerful vision: a bill or law, with its history laid bare and its sections precisely broken out, and real names attached prominently to each one. Why shouldn’t we able to have that? And since version control systems are helpful to the point of absolute necessity in any collaborative software effort, why wouldn’t Congress employ such an approach?
When people first happen upon this idea, their reaction tends to fall into two camps, which I’ll refer to as triumphalist and dismissive.
John’s and the Sunlight Foundation’s view that legislative history of acts of Congress is a form of transparency is the view taught to high school civics classes. And about as naive as it comes.
True enough, there are extensive legislative histories for every act passed by Congress. That has very little to do with how laws come to be written, by who and for whose interests.
Say for example a lobbyist who has contributed to a Senator’s campaign is concerned with the rules for visa’s for computer engineers. He/she visits the Senator and just happens to have a draft of amendments, created by a well known Washington law firm, that addresses their needs. That document is studied by the Senator’s staff.
Lo and behold, similar language appears in a bill introduced by the Senator. (Or as an amendment to some other bill.)
The Senator will even say that he is sponsoring the legislation to further the interests of those “job creators” in the high tech industry. What gets left out is the access to the Senator by the lobbyist and the assistance in bringing that legislation to the fore.
Indulging governments in their illusions of transparency is the surest way to avoid meaningful transparency.
Now you have to ask yourself, who has an interest in avoiding meaningful transparency?
I first saw this at Legal Informatics (which has other links that will interest you).