Congress posts U.S. Code in XML

XML release and related legal schema could 'revolutionize' the way lawmakers and citizens interact with the law.


The House of Representatives has published all 51 titles of the U.S. Code in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format for download, as part of the leadership’s open government agenda. For developers and government watchdogs, it provides tools for rendering taggable, machine-readable versions of U.S. law.

Developers are already taking advantage of the release and building tools to facilitate the searching and rendering of the code. “Putting U.S. Code into XML doesn’t revolutionize the way legislators and citizens interact with the law yet, but it could,” said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition.

Previously, the online versions of the code were available in simple, unstructured text files. “Providing free and open access to the U.S. Code in XML is another win for open government,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a joint statement. The move follows similar developments, including moves by the Government Printing Office to publish House bills in XML and the release of XML House floor summaries by the Office of the Clerk.

Underlying the release is the United States Legislative Markup (USLM) schema, which provides a guide for structuring legislative data. Prepared by the Office of Law Revision Counsel, which publishes the U.S. Code, the USLM provides a blueprint for how the complex organization of federal statutes into titles, chapters, articles, sections and other divisions can be described in XML.

The USLM is designed to be flexible, to accommodate unanticipated ways the code and other legislative data might be structured in the future, while also supporting existing data produced by Congress. USLM was built to be easy to use and edit, with a minimum of computer jargon. The effort initially supports the U.S. Code, but according to the documentation, “it is designed to be adaptable for appendices to titles of the United States Code as well as bills, resolutions, statutes, and certain other legislative materials.”

This hints at more ambitious future applications of USLM. Hollister said he hopes that eventually all groups that work at drafting legislation, including appropriations committees in both chambers, the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate, will adopt the USLM standard.

“If the USLM expands beyond the Office of Law Revision Council, people will be able to do legislative markups using apps,” Hollister said. “There will be no snowstorms of paper in committee rooms.” The result, he said, would be a less error-prone, more efficient and transparent process of writing legislation.

If appropriators adopted the USLM, it could also begin of a transformation of methods to track federal dollars. XML tags could be used to identify appropriation line items and assess their impact on the overall budget. Once appropriations were enacted, Hollister said, the legislative data could be mapped with executive branch data sources to give a picture of the end-to-end lifecycle of federal spending -- from budget to allocation to disbursement to award to sub-award.

A good deal of coordination would be required for this to happen, however. The House leadership has been pushing these efforts since 2011, and in 2012 a task force was established to spur the Government Printing Office, the Library of Congress, and other legislative branch offices to publish Congressional information in XML. In their release, Boehner and Cantor promised more access to legislative data, including updates to the U.S. Code as new laws are enacted.