Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and contributing author for The Congressional Deskbook (TheCapitol.Net) .
THOMAS, the popular legislative website, is back for the 109th Congress with just a few changes. The same image of Thomas Jefferson peers out from the banner, and the main page looks essentially the same. One level down, however, screens for searching legislation and the Congressional Record have changed. THOMAS users now can search the text of legislation across multiple congresses for the 101st Congress (1989) to the present. All or any combination of congresses can be selected to be searched simultaneously. Word searches can be limited to 1) legislation with floor action or legislation that has been enrolled and sent to the president, and 2) just House or just Senate legislation. Searches are handled by the same THOMAS word search engine1 used since the site’s launch in 1995.
To search multiple congresses, select “Bills and Resolutions” on the main THOMAS page. The bills and resolutions search options screen, pictured at left, is part of the 109th Congress redesign. To use the new feature, choose “Multi-Congress Search.”
This screenshot shows a sample multi-Congress search on the phrase “flood insurance,” with results limited to legislation that has received floor action.
Results are displayed for the first 500 hits, unless this default number is changed by the searcher.
As shown on the screenshot below, the search results are sorted in THOMAS’s relevance order, with the bills from different congresses intermixed. Different versions of the same bill are also scattered in the results; since different versions can have slightly or dramatically different text, they can show up anywhere in the relevance-ordered results. When you select one bill to display, an “other versions” link will appear at the top of the screen if other versions exist. Check the other versions to be sure you have the most recent or most relevant text for your needs2.
This new feature will help streamline cross-congress searching done by researchers who have a very specific word or phrase to find—a word or phrase that is also likely to show up in the legislation they are seeking. But anyone using the full text search, whether for a single congress or for several, should do a little further research in the THOMAS Bill Summary and Status (BS&S) file, Congressional Record, and other sources to confirm that they have the right bill(s) and the right version.
While welcome, multi-congress searching of legislation text probably does not rank at the absolute top of researchers’ lists of demands for improvements to THOMAS. Addition of content, such as Congressional Research Service reports, likely would have brought more joy to the world. (For more on the topic of CRS reports, see the LLRX article CRS Reports by Stephen Young.) So, why did a planned upgrade to THOMAS start with this feature?
In the 108th Congress, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced a resolution (S. Res. 360) supporting the continued operation of the THOMAS web site by the Library of Congress. The Senators felt that THOMAS had fallen too far behind the Legislative Information System (LIS), Congress’s own restricted-access legislative web site. In introducing the resolution, Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) remarked, “LIS users are able to search across multiple Congresses to find information about bills; THOMAS users must search each Congress individually” (150 Cong. Rec. S5481-2, May 13, 2004). This resolution was not acted on by the Senate, but it had been preceded by a similar letter from a group of senators to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. So, THOMAS has met one of the demands listed by the senators, but only partially. In the LIS system, congressional users can search legislative text and the Bill Summary & Status database across multiple congresses. Constructing a multi-congress search is more difficult in BS&S than in legislative text files, given changes to the database over time as well as changes to committee names and other parts of the congressional landscape. But multi-congress searching with BS&S would allow researchers to search on attributes such as sponsorship, committee referral, legislative status step, and controlled subject vocabulary, all across multiple congresses. And BS&S reaches further back, to the 93rd Congress (1973), than do the legislative text files.
Aside from the multi-congress feature, the upgrade for the new 109th Congress brought a redesign for the search screens for the Congressional Record and the biweekly Congressional Record Index. Two Congressional Record links from the main THOMAS page—“Browse by Date or Keyword” and “Search Congressional Record”—both now lead to a page that combines access to the Index, an issue browse feature, and full text search.
Congressional Record Index/Search page
Putting these options—browse sections by date, browse the Index, and word search—all on one screen should encourage researchers to use multiple ways to find the Congressional Record pages they need. Searching the Record on THOMAS can be difficult; the new screen makes it more convenient to try the multi-pronged approach that is often necessary.
My only regret about the THOMAS redesign is that the BS&S file has been moved one click away from the main page. THOMAS’s bill status feature provides valuable information not available through other free legislative sites such as GPO Access. Since the status steps often link directly to the relevant source documents at GPO or House or Senate servers, BS&S provides a quick way to find these documents online without the challenges of word searching.
According to a notice that the THOMAS team posted to announce these changes, additional changes should be on the way later in the 109th Congress: “We have received numerous comments and suggestions for further improvement from the public and are incorporating them into the first of several planned upgrades for the site.” Input can be sent to [email protected].
1 For detailed information on searching and relevance ranking on THOMAS, see: http://thomas.loc.gov/home/abt_thom.html#inquery
2 For explanations of bill versions, see the GPO Access help file at: http://www.gpoaccess.gov/bills/glossary.html#cversions