The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

Procedural Uncertainty & Normalization

January 9th, 2008 by Joshua Tauberer · 1 Comment

I always find it interesting how although our government is run by fairly strict procedural rules that have been written out in various places, starting with the constitution and ending somewhere past the horizon, sometimes it’s just impossible to locate exactly at what point in the procedural game “reality” is. For instance, the constitution outlines how a bill can become a law. But, at what point is a bill considered vetoed? If the president is signing the veto signature but misspells “veto” (or whatever he writes in this case, I have no idea), or is taken to the hospital before he writes the “o”, is the bill vetoed, or is it still awaiting a signature?

The reason this is interesting to me is that we like to capture reality in data. The Library of Congress and GovTrack both systematize (or in computer jargon “normalize”) the bill-becomes-a-law process. At every point in the game, a bill, in our data formats, is either in-progress, enacted, dead, etc. It must be in one of these states. After all, the constitution outlines exactly what states a bill can be in, so any bill *must* be in one of these states.

But if we’re not sure what state a bill is in, what state do we put it in in our data? There’s also the more important question- What do the lawmakers do if they disagree about what state a bill is in? (Actually, I would prefer to phrase it as “what state they are in”, but that’s another story.) Wikipedia describes (what the editors of the page claim is) a current debacle over H.R. 1585: National Defense Authorization Act FY 2008:

In December of 2007, President George W. Bush pushed the pocket veto into murky waters by claiming that he had pocket vetoed H.R. 1585, the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008,” even though the House of Representatives had designated agents to receive presidential messages before adjourning. The bill had been previously passed by veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate [JT: and thus a traditional veto would have been futile].

So was the bill (pocket) vetoed or not? Is the bill still in-progress? Assuming it was not pocket vetoed, after 10 legislative days without a traditional veto it becomes law, and us citizens would hate to be on that 11th day without either resolution on the pocket veto matter or a traditional veto, because then we as a country will not know whether this bill has become law. (Another question: How might the Supreme Court assert jurisdiction over this question.)

But back to the data. At one point, some time after Dec. 28, someone in the House responsible for updating the bill status information shown on THOMAS entered a new status line:

Dec 28, 2007: Pocket Vetoed by President.

GovTrack picked up on the change and shows that status currently, much to the confusion of several people emailing me about it. Looking back at THOMAS, it seems like someone realized that that was apparently quite a constitutional (if not political) claim and retracted that update, because it not longer says that.

In many cases citizens complain when the government takes things back, hiding information previously made public. That’s definitely not what I am getting at here. THOMAS is forced to show *something*, and when it doubt… well, what can you do but roll back history until we figure out what the next legislative step actually *was*.

Tags: House of Representatives · OpenHouse · Structured Data · executive · govtrack · jurisdiction · library of congress · procedure

1 response so far ↓

  • Charles Johnson // Jan 10, 2008 at 10:33 pm

    Give me a break! If I owned the IRS money, I would like to use this pocket veto?

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