The Body Politic: Public Actions

The Body Politic: Public Actions

BY David Alan Grier Posted: 5 Feb 2015

I was surprised to learn that the U. S. Congress had voted to slow work on one aspect of Internet governance, but I’m not always in touch with the give and take within the Capitol complex.  I did know that the chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Technology, Greg Walden (R-Ore.), was concerned about some of the proposals for overseeing the Domain Name System (see “The Law of the Land”) but I didn’t think that he had been able to rally enough political support to be able to do something about it.  When I heard the rumor that Congress had intervened in the discussion, I quickly went to the web and was able to assemble the entire story in just a few minutes. 

Information technology has substantially changed the legislative process in the United States.  Because of this technology, the process is more open, more transparent, more visible to the public.  It is harder for someone to insert a clause into a bill and hope that it won’t be discovered.  The text of bills, including preliminary drafts, can be found online at http://www.congress.gov.  This site also include the votes on the bills, committee reports, and transcripts of debate on the bill (or at least transcripts of the words that the members of congress would like us to believe that they said in debate).  The public can follow the progress of bills as they move through each step of the legislative process. 

Not that long ago, legislation was tracked by a small occupying army of individuals who would go to the Library of Congress or the Congressional offices in order to follow the progress of bills.  Each week, they would prepare reports on specific topics for their clients -- clients who might be law firms, large corporations or even foreign governments.   These individuals would guard their knowledge jealously.  They would talk about how difficult it was to develop contacts on the Hill, how big the legislative record was, and how easy it is to hide things within a large bill. 

Admittedly, legislation is not a particularly readable literary form.  Bills tend to be long because they have to provide information for a large and complex institution, the U. S. Government.   Also, they are often complicated because they are edits rather than direct statements.  They give the instructions to the Congressional staff about how they should edit the U. S. Code, the unified set of regulations that has been created over the past 240 years.  Once these edits have been applied to the U. S. Code, the laws of the land  will correctly describe the intent of Congress. 

Once you understand the nature of modern legislation, you find that it is much easier to read it with the aid of a good electronic search tool than trying to read the piece from start to finish.  Search on the keywords for your topic.  Search for the relevant agencies or sections of the U. S. Code.  Put what you have in context and you will start to understand what Congress has tried to do. 

It took less than 15 minutes for me to see that Congress was trying to delay any proposed transfer of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority until after the current fiscal year. (Again, see “Law of the Land.”)  The bill that funded the government for the 2015 fiscal year (HR 83) contained a paragraph that prevented the Department of Congress from using any of its funds to transfer that function in 2015 and a supplemental document stated that Congress would require a full report on any proposed transfer before it happened.  Taken together, they suggest that Congress didn’t want to stop any transfer, but it didn’t want to be surprised and it wanted a change to consider any proposed changes. 

So the rumor proved to be true, though the truth of the story was not quite the idea that had originally been communicated to me.   Congress was indeed intervening in the Internet Governance debate, but it was intervening in a way that would allow it to review and discuss any proposed changes before they took place.

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David Alan Grier is the author of numerous books on technology and writes “Erranthashtag” for IEEE Computer.  He is a Fellow of the IEEE and a Past President of the Computer Society.

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