The central portal for legislative data—including bills, hearings and historic documents—has been getting a continual makeover since 2016, with a host of new improvements rolling out this year.
Four years after shuttering Thomas.gov and launching its replacement, Congress.gov, the Library of Congress is touting a host of new features meant to address accessibility and add capabilities requested by users.
During a virtual public forum Thursday hosted by the Library, officials walked through some of the improvements that went live in 2020 and looked ahead at enhancements expected to roll out over the next months and year.
“Congress gave the Library the responsibility of providing a central, accessible place for their data,” Library Chief Information Officer Bud Barton said during the forum.
Barton dwelled on this point, noting the data accessible through Congress.gov is not the Library’s data.
“It’s data that belongs to the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and they have final say on how their data is presented,” he said. “And for nearly [three] decades now, the Library of Congress has helped coordinate a fairly complex data exchange between the clerk of the House, the secretary of Senate and our legislative branch data partners like the Government Publishing Office and the Congressional Budget Office.”
The Library launched Congress.gov in 2016, merging two older portals: Thomas.gov, which maintained information for the public on passed and pending bills, and the Legislative Information System, or LIS, which was geared toward members of Congress.
Since that time, the website has gone through iterative improvements, a number of which were completed in 2020.
Robert Brammer, chief of the Office of External Relations of the Law Library of Congress and subject matter expert for Congress.gov, noted that many of these improvements came out of feedback from users, including the public and members of Congress and their staffs.
“Since Congress.gov launched, nearly a quarter of all questions submitted to our Ask a Librarian service have been related to Congress.gov,” he said.
Over the last year, the Library team has added capabilities like the ability to search for your representative or senator by entering your address and the ability to deep link within legislation, enabling users to direct others to specific bill sections instead of just linking to the top of the page.
The site now also features the Bound Congressional Record from 1983 through 1994; district maps on House member profile pages; keyword and context to search results for legislative text; and even historic committee names when searching past nominations, something Brammer said was a heavy lift for the Congressional Research Service, “who had to go through the process of tracking down the history of committees to add this feature.”
The site also boasts new accessibility features, such as a Spanish translation of the “Overview of Legislative Process” videos and ReadSpeaker text-to-speech capabilities for legislation, which allows a user to hear the text on the page and download a copy of the audio file.
“We used data from the feedback form, metrics and testing for a user-centric approach to adding these new features so that they’re easy to find and easy to use,” Brammer said. “Our development lifecycle is continuous, iterative improvement, which includes user feedback at the formative and summative stages.”
The other major initiative in 2020 was adding more detailed information about committee hearings.
“Just this month we started adding committee hearing transcripts to the site and we incorporated style improvements to make it easier to link Congressional Budget Office cost estimates,” Brammer said. “We added a weekly alert option to the committee schedule so you can receive an email each Monday with the committee schedule for the coming week. This enhancement, along with the expanded view of the committee schedule were in response to feedback from the public.”
This functionality went live shortly before Thursday’s event and can now be found through the committee search dropdown, as well as on the committee meetings search function.
“Committee hearing transcripts is one of the things we’ve been working to incorporate with the committee schedule that we have on our roadmap,” said Andrew Weber, a legislative data specialist with the Congressional Research Service and product owner for Congress.gov.
“Another historic collection we want to bring into Congress.gov are the Statutes at Large,” a chronological record of all laws passed by Congress, he said, noting this has been a long-term goal for the Congress.gov team.
The work is being done over three phases, with the ultimate goal of making “the public laws browsable, searchable and incorporate them into Congress.gov.” Weber said.
Looking forward, the team is focused on deploying more improvements to the site, Weber said, including enhancing the help center.
“Congress.gov has a great help center now. But we know Congress is complicated, Congress.gov can be complicated, and we have comprehensive amount of information in our help center. So, we want to add search capabilities to the top of our help center,” he said. “We’re working on indexing the content so that we can add search results. And we’d also like to include keyword and context for the help center results, similar to what Robert mentioned for bill text.”
The team is also working on other ways to use keyword and context to improve search functions, such as with the effort to digitize the Bound Congressional Record.
“We think that with the addition of the Bound Congressional Record—so far we’ve added the six Congresses to that, but we want to go back in time to 1873,” Weber said. “We think that maybe the Bound Congressional Record quick search form might be the next great place to add the keywords and context to the results.”
Along with screen reader and other like improvements, the Library is planning more accessibility upgrades, as well.
“One of the other things we’ve added to several parts of the site is this ReadSpeaker,” Weber noted. “With this week’s release we added it to committee reports. But we plan to continue to add it to more pages, such as the congressional record daily digest, the new committee prints and the committee transcripts.”