Category Archives: Politics

What’s wrong with Puckett’s resignation?

Further to the matter of Sen. Phil Puckett’s retirement, I want to play out the shades of inappropriateness here. While what he has done clearly feels wrong (allegedly quitting his seat in the Senate of Virginia in exchange for a job running a state-chartered organization and a judgeship for his daughter, all done immediately prior to the deadline for the legislature to hold a vote on the budget, in which his absence will give Republicans a one-member majority and the ability to prevent healthcare reform), I think it’s worth exploring what about it is wrong.

Imagine that Sen. Puckett had sold his vote. In exchange for $150,000 in cash, he would vote against a budget that included healthcare reform. Any reasonable person would regard that as wrong.

Imagine that Sen. Puckett had sold his non-vote. In exchange for $150,000 in cash, he would take a walk when the bill came up for a vote. I think that any reasonable person would regard that as wrong, too.

Imagine that Sen. Puckett had sold his absence. In exchange for $150,000 in cash, he would make sure that he was thousands of miles away when the legislature reconvened to hold the vote. I also think that any reasonable person would regard that as wrong.

Now imagine that Sen. Puckett sold his resignation. In exchange for $150,000, he would quit so that he could not cast a vote on the budget bill. Many reasonable people would regard that as wrong.

And now we have the alleged reality, of Sen. Puckett selling his resignation in exchange for perhaps $150,000 annually, so that he could not cast a vote on a budget bill. Many reasonable people would also regard that as wrong.

In that real-life scenario, we have two possible parties who might have done something wrong. First, we have Sen. Puckett, who may or may not have intended to quit in order to prevent a vote from happening—he might argue that he simply quit the legislature for a tantalizing job offer that was only available within a small window, but that he couldn’t have held while also serving in the legislature. Puckett of course knew that his resignation would prevent him from voting on the most important bill before the legislature, and unless he is a very stupid man, he would have known that Kilgore was offering him the job so that he could not cast that vote. Then we have Del. Terry Kilgore, the chair of the tobacco commission, who offered Puckett the job. Kilgore likewise knew what Puckett’s resignation would mean. I suspect that two key questions here these: Did Kilgore intend to prevent Puckett from voting on the budget bill by offering him a job? And did Puckett intend to not vote on the budget bill in exchange for accepting a job?

Kilgore, of course, thinks that he’s being clever by saying that he never offered Puckett a job, but that “if he’s available, we would like to have him.” This is almost certainly bullshit, which I define as meaning that the statement is a) untrue, b) Kilgore knows that it’s untrue, and c) we know it to be untrue. It insults our collective intelligence to claim that Puckett resigned from the Senate of Virginia on the vague hope of a job heading the tobacco commission. (Or, at least, it insults Puckett.) And that leads us to the third key question: Have Puckett and Kilgore already negotiated the terms of employment for the tobacco commission?

If state investigators look into a violation of § 18.2-447, they’re going to get records of communications between Puckett and Kilgore. If they actually struck a deal here, and they didn’t have the good sense to only negotiate the terms privately and in-person (making discovery impossible), this could get ugly, and fast. On the other hand, if they’re aboveboard and have any sense, they made sure that all negotiations occurred in the presence of attorneys, and were done either exclusively by writing or were recorded as audio or video.

Evidence has a way of disappearing. I hope investigators are looking into this.

Ethics and tobacco meet again in Richmond.

This evening, the Washington Post’s Laura Vozella covered big political news:

Republicans appear to have outmaneuvered Gov. Terry McAuliffe in a state budget standoff by persuading a Democratic senator to resign his seat, at least temporarily giving the GOP control of the chamber and possibly dooming the governor’s push to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) will announce his resignation Monday, effective immediately, paving the way to appoint his daughter to a judgeship and Puckett to the job of deputy director of the state tobacco commission, three people familiar with the plan said Sunday.

This is, it must be said, a brilliant bit of maneuvering on the part of Republicans in the legislature. With the Senate split 20-20 between parties (and the Democratic lieutenant governor able to act as the tiebreaker on only certain matters), persuading Puckett to quit is a clever move. No doubt his Republican colleagues were aware that he was interested in retiring after 17 years in office. (He’s up for another 4-year term in November of next year, so it’s decision-making time for him.) By offering him a plum job, contingent on quitting his job before the long-delayed budget vote could be held, they will regain a majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, making the governor’s demand unreasonable. Politically speaking, well-played.

That said, this is bullshit. In a legislative session that had a major theme of ethics reform, during which Governor Bob McDonnell was indicted (the week after his term ended, an apparent Justice Department courtesy), wrapping it up with a political coup contingent on trading control of an entire chamber for a state job for a legislator and a judgeship for his daughter? It’s absurd. It’s the stuff of parody. This would be the kicker at the end of an episode of Alpha House.

I don’t think it’s tone-deaf on the part of Republicans, I just think that they don’t care. And Puckett’s constituents almost certainly say that they are opposed to “Obamacare,” when asked in a survey, and his new job—handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to rural areas—will make him very popular in his district. Basically, he gets the job of Santa Claus. So not only will his (former) constituents probably not object, but he’s out of office anyway, so what they think also doesn’t really matter.

Is Puckett’s daughter qualified to be a judge? Do Republicans care? Does Puckett care? Is this how we want to be selecting our judges? Is it appropriate for a legislator to require that his own daughter be made a judge? Shouldn’t, in fact, the legislator have absolutely nothing to do, in any way at all, with his daughter’s potential appointment to a judgeship?

The worst part is that this isn’t illegal. State ethics laws might as well not exist. We’ve only had a couple of state-level elected officials indicted on ethics charges in recent history.

(At Think Progress, Ian Millhiser argues that this could actually be illegal, citing § 18.2-447(2). I hope that’s the case.)

First was Delegate Phil Hamilton, who in 2009 was caught holding a state job that he created legislatively, in exchange for being awarded the job. Especially problematic was that he apparently never even showed up for the $40,000/year part-time job. He’s in prison now, and will be through the rest of the decade.

Second was Gov. McDonnell, indicted in January after accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a major campaign donor in exchange for favorable treatment of and promotion of that donor’s sham medical treatments. Declared McDonnell, of Star Scientific’s flagship product, unregulated supplements: “They work for me!” (Just this week they changed their name to Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, in what will be a fruitless effort to outrun their terrible reputation.) The indictment charges McDonnell with honest-services fraud, false statements, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, among other things.

Let us now consider a series of odd coincidences here. Puckett was wooed away to run the Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which paid $309M to Virginia tobacco producers to persuade them to stop growing tobacco. The organization is funded by the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which was the result of a lawsuit that 46 states brought against Altria (née Philip Morris), R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard. In 1998, the companies settled, agreeing to pay $206 billion to those states. Virginia’s share is distributed via the state-chartered organization that Puckett will be headed up. And then there’s the company that brought McDonnell down, Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, née Star Scientific, née, Star Tobacco. Star Tobacco manufactured cigarettes and chewing tobacco, and they remained in the tobacco business straight through 2012, as they sought to rebrand themselves as a pharmaceutical company. (Pharmaceuticals—or, rather, “supplements”—manufactured with tobacco, appallingly.) Although Star Tobacco refused to join the settlement, states ultimately got their money via Brown & Williamson, which manufactured Star Tobacco’s products in their plants. So we’ve got Puckett going to work for the organization that was funded by the profits generated by the company that allegedly bribed McDonnell.

But, wait, there’s more. The tobacco commission actually gave a $2M grant to Star Tobacco to help them promote their cigarettes and chew, appallingly. And—get this—a big part of what McDonnell is in trouble for was that he allegedly tried to persuade the tobacco commission to provide a grant to Star Scientific, by way of funding clinical trials of one of their tobacco supplements at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, to provide a sheen of legitimacy to what is now clearly a useless substance.

And it gets better still! The chairman of the tobacco commission is Terry Kilgore, the Republican legislator who is said to have struck the deal with Puckett. Kilgore’s twin brother, Jerry Kilgore, isn’t merely a former attorney general of Virginia, but he’s also the attorney representing Johnny Williams, the CEO of Star Scientific, in the McDonnell case.

Here’s the thing that you should know, if you’re not from Virginia: tobacco isn’t a big business here. It hasn’t been for a long, long time, and the tiny shreds of it that were left fled the country with the passage of NAFTA. While it’s true that the General Assembly has tobacco leaves painted on the ceiling of Capitol Rotunda, but that’s a holdover from decades ago, long before Puckett or McDonnell were in office.

These two tobacco-related scandals aren’t about the power of tobacco, it’s about the profound lack of ethics laws in Virginia.

We talk a good game here about “the Virginia Way.” This is the notion that rhetorical civility, bipartisanship, comity, and transparency are all that’s really necessary. We don’t need laws about ethics, because everybody in government is honest and everybody in the public knows it. We don’t need regulation of businesses, because their inspections are on file in a cabinet in Richmond where anybody can go between the hours of 9–5 (but not during the lunch hour) and ask to look at them, and isn’t that transparency? The people in power claim to truly believe this, and they put on a very convincing face while explaining that they truly believe it. I know these people. I have spoken on panels with these people (in opposition to them, confessedly), and I have put on events at which they have spoken about the Virginia Way. It is now entirely evident that these people are utterly, humiliatingly wrong, but, much like legislative Republicans and Phil Puckett right now, they just don’t care, because it’s working out for them.

Kilgore and company will get their majority, and they’ll be able to keep 400,000 Virginians from getting health insurance and the state from getting $1.7B in federal taxes already being collected from Virginians, which are very important to them for some reason that they can’t quite explain. Puckett will get a job, with a salary that Kilgore says he’ll determine at a later date. (Can you believe that Puckett is quitting his Senate seat in exchange for a job with an undetermined salary? Yeah, neither can I.) Apparently that moral calculus—he gets a job, 400,000 people don’t get health care—makes sense to him.

This entire sad show—bound to make Virginia a national laughingstock yet again—is the cherry on top of the General Assembly’s completely useless ethics reform bill which, of course, does absolutely nothing to prohibit this. Selling your seat in exchange for a couple of state jobs is something that they never considered, despite its obviousness, because the entire bill was a charade, a performance for the benefit of voters. Well, perhaps “benefit” isn’t the word. The only people benefiting from this are the 140 members of the legislature. I can think of nineteen senators who might be wishing they’d written a better bill.

Déjà vu.

I’ve watched the drip-drip-sploosh of revelations about Bob McDonnell’s with a sense of recognition. As the charges become more serious (daughter’s wedding yields to Rolex yields to $50,000 to McDonnell’s wife yields to $70,000 to McDonnell’s business), it’s feeling a lot like the financial improprieties that accompanied his 2005 campaign for attorney general.

In 2005, McDonnell got 1/3 of all of his campaign’s funding—over $2 million—from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a federal organization that had just been implicated in Jack Abramoff’s money-laundering scheme. McDonnell wouldn’t disclose his donors, despite having declared that every donor to his campaign should be public. I knew full well who the donors were—big tobacco, big oil, casinos, and payday loan companies—as, indeed, ultimately proved to be the case. Never mind the truth, McDonnell went on the radio to denounce me, accusing me of being part of a “grand conspiracy.” McDonnell’s actions were universally condemned by editorial boards. Just a few months later, after I’d been proven correct, McDonnell had a bill introduced to close the hole he’d exploited, and the law now reflects that. So, McDonnell skirted the law, then lied about it, then confessed to it, and finally—having no further use for the loophole—called for the law to be amended.

Bob McDonnell is going through the same steps now as he did eight years ago:

1. Deny the allegations.
2. Confess to the allegations.
3. Claim that he’s within the letter of the law.
4. Call for the law to be amended to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

In fact, he’s already gone through all of these four steps, but in much less time than eight years ago. This time, of course, a grand jury has been convened, so shit got real pretty fast, accelerating the McDonnell Denial Cycle.

The Washington Post editorial board wins the Most Prescient award for their October 27, 2005 editorial about McDonnell:

If he wins on Nov. 8, he’ll become Virginia’s foremost law enforcement official. Yet as things stand, he would enter office tainted, complicit in ignoring the state law that insists the public should know where candidates get their cash. If he approaches this law with a wink and a nod, why should he be trusted to enforce the others?

Bob McDonnell, on the other hand, wins the Least Self-Aware award:

An agitated McDonnell said the scrutiny has been disappointing.

“Thirty-seven years–no one’s raised questions about my integrity or my character,” he said.

Anybody who’s been paying attention should have seen this coming, or at least its strong possibility. Except for Bob McDonnell. To be fair, though, he may not be paying attention.

Bullshittery and bad candidates.

There’s something about an election that turns people into liars.

Once upon a time, there was a relatively small cohort of people who had a public stake in an election. Those people would insist that their candidate was great—totally perfect, if the truth be told—no matter how lousy that they really thought that the candidate was. Election day would come and go and, if their guy lost, they’d say to their peers, quietly, “I never really liked the guy anyway.” And in retrospect, their bullshittery would be described as “spin,” a polite way to say “lying by people who are already known to be liars.”

Today, thanks to social media, we have millions of people who have a chosen political candidate, a desire to promote that candidate, and an audience of hundreds or thousands of people to whom they can spread their message. Unfortunately, bullshittery has accompanied this growth, meaning that we have more bullshitters than ever. But now they have a credulous audience, people who are not aware that what they’re saying is bullshit. (I’m using here my very specific definition of “bullshit”: a false assertion that both the speaker and listener know to be false.) I do not include in this group people who are paid to promote a candidate or a party, provided that they have the good sense to leave their friends and family out of their bullshitting.

E.W. Jackson, the Republican Party’s train wreck of a lieutenant governor candidate, is Exhibit A. No rational person could look at his candidacy and think this is a good idea. This is not a debatable point. Anybody rational who would debate that point now would concede privately that they’re bullshitting, and is liable to do so publicly come November.

We have a word for people who say things that are blatantly untrue: liars. And this is how these folks are perceived by most folks in their audiences when they make foolish claims about candidates, and especially when they recant post-election. If you think a candidate sucks, say so, or say nothing at all. To do otherwise is to support the continuation of a broken political system and to broadcast to your friends and family this message: I am a liar.

Ethics training in the governor’s office.

The ethics records that the attorney general’s office refuses to give me didn’t present an obstacle for Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office. Here are the records of when the employees of that office—including Gov. McDonnell—have received their legally-mandated ethics training:


(Because employees have come and gone during the prescribed period, some have received training in other branches of government. Others received training as a part of their continuing education requirement by the state bar.)

I FOIAed these records in response to the ethics questions surrounding the governor and the AG’s relationship with Star Scientific. It looks to me like McDonnell and his employees are receiving the required training. Whether Cuccinelli and his employees are is, apparently, a state secret.

A Virginia campaign finance API.

Last year, I wrote here that I was working on an open-source campaign finance parser for Virginia State Board of Elections data. Thanks to the good work of the folks at the SBE, who are making enormous advances in opening up their data, I’ve been able to make some great progress on this recently. That open-source project, named “Saberva,” is now a fully-functioning program. When run, it gathers a host of data from the State Board of Elections’ great new campaign finance site and saves it all as a series of machine-readable JSON files. (And a simple CSV file of basic committee data, which is more useful for some folks.) The program is running on Open Virginia, which means that, at long last, Virginia has an API and bulk downloads for campaign finance data.

This is now the source of Richmond Sunlight‘s campaign finance data about each candidate (currently limited to their cash-on-hand and a link to their most recent filing), which provides me with a good incentive to continue to improve it.

If you’ve got ideas for how to improve this still-young project, you’re welcome to comment here, open a ticket on GitHub, or make a pull request. Hate it, and want to copy it and make your own, radically different version? Fork it! It’s released under the MIT License, so you can do anything you want with it. I look forward to seeing where this goes.

Cuccinelli’s self-inflicted FOIA gunshot wound.

This time last week, I got a surprise in the mail. A couple of weeks prior, I had sent requests to both the governor and the attorney general’s offices for some pretty boring records—a list of everybody in their offices who had received the ethics training prescribed under the law. These records are explicitly FOIAable, so I anticipated that I’d just get an Excel file e-mailed to me before long. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but the FBI probe into Bob McDonnell and Ken Cuccinelli’s relationships with Star Scientific made me wonder if the proper ethics training had been provided. Five business days later, both offices got back to me saying that they’d need another five days. No problem. Then, last Thursday, I got home to find a letter in the mail from Cuccinelli’s office. Busy packing for a flight the next day, I didn’t get around to reading it until late at night, just before bed. This was the letter:

I found the letter difficult to understand, in part because of the lateness of the hour, but on the third reading, I figured it out. The attorney general’s office was claiming that a) they did not need to offer ethics training b) they did not need to comply with FOIA. Having no idea of how to respond to this, and knowing I’d have no time to deal with it for at least five days, I simply scanned in the document, posted it to DocumentCloud, tweeted about it, and went to bed.

It quickly emerged that I was not the only person to be told by the OAG that they were complying with FOIA only as a matter of courtesy, I was merely the first person to tweet about it. Roz Helderman wrote about the matter for the Washington Post, and David Ress wrote about it for the Roanoke Times. (The Times had also been told by the AG’s office that FOIA didn’t apply to them.) These stories were published on Sunday, the same day that the prior day’s Republican convention was on the front page. What should have been a day full of post-convention-bounce news, helpful to the newly minted nominee for governor was, instead, marred by coverage of Cuccinelli’s extraordinary claim. The timing by Cuccinelli’s office was amazingly bad.

Editorial boards were unanimous in their response.

The Richmond Times Dispatch:

So how did the attorney general’s position seem ironic? Let us count the ways:
A believer in original intent is ignoring the plain meaning of the law.
To do so, he rests his case on an appeal to judicial authority that he shows little regard for in other cases — such as Roe, Kelo, or the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling upholding Obamacare.

He thereby seems to suggest a state agency with a staff of dozens and a budget of $36 million has to disclose less than, say, a researcher at the University of Virginia whose work has been questioned by right-wing activists. Cuccinelli spent two years and untold sums trying to pry loose the private correspondence of climatologist Michael Mann. Poor Mann — if only he had had the presence of mind to claim he was, like the AG’s office, not a “public body.”

The Roanoke Times:

Virginia’s top lawyer is not above the law. Nor is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli just doing his constituents a favor when he responds to requests for public records.

Cuccinelli’s startling epiphany that he is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act came at a convenient moment. He is running for governor while being pelted with questions about his relationship with a businessman who has a pending dispute over state taxes.

It was tempting for Cuccinelli to slather himself in a potent Scandal Proof Formula to shield himself from the state sunshine law.

The Daily Press:

To truly appreciate the absurdity of the legal argument, consider this: The public-records law that staff members in Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office said did not apply to the attorney general specifically mentions the office four times.

[...]

[Their] explanation is ludicrous, its reasoning so twisted that it can only be understood through its ultimate goal: To deny requests made by this paper’s sister publication, The Roanoke Times, and others for office records and correspondence involving a company entangled in a federal investigation and multiple lawsuits, including one against the state.

The Daily Press:

It’s no wonder Virginia received an “F” grade from the State Integrity Investigation, a watchdog organization that monitors the risk of government corruption in each of the 50 states. While Virginia ranks 12th in the nation in population, it ranks 47th in the organization’s key measures of government transparency. The Attorney General’s policy shift demonstrates what can happen when a weak FOIA law combines with an insipid judicial precedent: We get a culture of need-to-know governance that undermines citizen access and decreases government accountability.

To be clear, the logic employed by the OAG (constitutional officers don’t have to comply with FOIA) is total nonsense. In § 2.2-3701—the definitions that establish the application of terms for the entire chapter about FOIA—this is made explicit:

For the purposes of the provisions of this chapter applicable to access to public records, constitutional officers shall be considered public bodies and, except as otherwise expressly provided by law, shall have the same obligations to disclose public records as other custodians of public records.

As The Daily Press wrote:

The legal argument, however, was never there, which is why no one in or out of state government could offer any defense for it.

“It’s news to me,” said Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

The council, a state-created entity, includes a representative from the attorney general’s office.

On Monday, in Richmond, he was notably quiet during a council subcommittee meeting to discuss FOIA exemptions.

The OAG’s own website says that they must comply with FOIA, The Daily Press points out:

[T]he Attorney General’s office maintains a FOIA page on its website that advises citizens: “You have the right to request to inspect or receive copies of public records, or both.” The page outlines detailed instructions for how to request information from the AG’s office, along with a list of the AG’s responsibilities — such as “the Office must respond to your request within five working days of receiving it.”

In brief, this is not a matter on which intelligent minds may disagree. It’s a silly claim, and I find it baffling that the AG’s office would make it, especially when not actually refusing to release any information. Nothing is gained by this, and, as OAG discovered, much stood to be lost.

So it didn’t come as a great surprise when Ken Cuccinelli issued a statement backing down—just a bit—from his office’s position. As Roz Helderman wrote for the Post, the OAG is no longer going to inform people that they don’t believe that FOIA applies to them. So Cuccinelli still believes that he’s FOIA-exempt. But he’ll keep responding to FOIA requests, apparently out of the goodness of his heart.

In the end, I’m not sure that it matters what Cuccinelli believes he’s obliged to do, as long as he actually complies with the law.

So here I am, a week later, and I still don’t have an answer to the boring question that I posed in the first place: Is the attorney general’s office providing ethics training to its employees? I’m coming at the question from a different angle now, having asked the governor’s office for related records, and I hope to find out the answer. It doesn’t strike me as a very interesting question—I figure that, whatever the response, it’ll merit a tweet and a blog entry consisting of sharing that response. I wish I knew what all the fuss was about.

Make money from home! (Even if your home is the governor’s mansion.)

Many months ago, an acquaintance was invited to join a small gathering at the estate of erstwhile Charlottesville-area millionaire Patricia Kluge. Kluge was inviting some women over to a brunch at Albemarle House, an event at which the honored guest was Virginia’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell. Unbeknownst to the invitees, the host was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. When they showed up for the event, Albemarle House was off-limits—soon to be sold on the courthouse steps—and the puzzled guests were directed to one of the model homes, bare of furniture. Left standing around in the living room, with no brunch to be found, their host and the first lady soon showed up. After only a brief introduction, McDonnell began to deliver a pitch. Gradually it dawned on the attendees that this was some kind of a pyramid scheme diet-pill scam. One by one, they slipped out, desperate to escape the suffocating awkwardness of the weird affair.

I was told this story shortly afterwards, and mostly found it baffling. The first lady? Hawking scam diet pills? What in the world? I had no frame of reference for such a story, and I decided to keep it to myself.

First lady Maureen McDonnell, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Donald Trump, and Patricia Kluge.
First lady Maureen McDonnell, Gov. Bob McDonnell, Donald Trump, and Patricia Kluge.

With the benefit of time, this story is no longer baffling. Instead, I get the sense that it’s a piece of a larger puzzle, a puzzle that a state-appointed prosecutor and the FBI are trying to assemble. There is a relationship between the governor, the first lady, and Star Scientific, a Virginia-based company that recently got out of the cheap-cigarette business and into the dietary supplement business. Star and its CEO have given $120,000 to McDonnell and his PAC, but apparently also gave some undisclosed gifts to McDonnell’s family, including his wife, Maureen. Star Scientific is in rough shape—they have enough money to get through early next year, but they keep having to sell more stock to pay the bills. They’re doing everything that they can to stay afloat. To that end, Maureen McDonnell went to Florida a couple of years ago, to promote their product, Anatabloc, in a talk.

I don’t know that Maureen McDonnell was promoting Anatabloc on that awkward day. (I don’t think any of the attendees were taking notes.) And I don’t have any reason to believe that doing so would have been wrong in any way. But I do think it’s a heck of an interesting coincidence, and I look forward to finding what it’s all about.

New site, new datasets.

Since creating Richmond Sunlight and Virginia Decoded, I’ve been building up a public trove of datasets about Virginia government: legislative video, the court system’s definitions of legal terms, court rulings, all registered dangerous dogs, etc. But they’re all scattered about on different websites. A couple of years ago, I slapped together a quick site to list all of them, but I outgrew it pretty quickly.

So now I’m launching a new site: the Open Virginia data repository. It’s an implementation of the excellent CKAN data repository software (which will soon drive Data.gov). The idea is to provide a single, searchable, extensible website where every known state dataset can be listed, making them easy to find and interact with. It’s built on the industry’s best software, in part because I’m hopeful that, eventually, I can persuade Virginia to simply take the site from me, to establish a long-overdue data.virginia.gov.

There are a few new datasets that accompany this launch:

  • The Dangerous Dog Registry as JSON, meaning that programmers can take these records and do something interesting with them. (Imagine an iPhone app that tells you when you’re close to a registered dangerous dog.) Previously I provided this only as HTML.
  • VDOT 511 Geodata. This is the GeoJSON that powers Virginia 511, exposed here for the first time. Road work, traffic cameras, accidents—all kinds of great data, updated constantly, with each GeoJSON feed listed here.
  • Public comments on proposed regulations. Over 28,000 comments have been posted by members of the public about regulations to the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall site over the past decade. Now they’re all available in a single file (formatted as JSON), for programmers to do interesting things with.

There’s so much more to come—good datasets already available, and datasets that need to be scraped from government sites and normalized—but this is a good start. I’m optimistic that providing an open, accessible home for this data will encourage others to join in and help create a comprehensive collection of data about the Virginia government and its services.

Senator Henry Marsh’s big day.

Senate Session

Today was a big day for Senator Henry Marsh. The legislator of twenty years took a rare day off during the Virginia Senate’s 46-day session, to attend President Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in Washington D.C. For the 79-year-old black civil rights lawyer, attending a black president’s inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday is perhaps the most auspicious of occasions. Certainly nobody would object to him missing just one day. Looking at today’s legislative calendar, he would have seen that his absence wouldn’t be problematic, with nothing contentious on the agenda. (With the Senate split 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans, and with a Republican lieutenant governor acting as tie-breaker, that’s no small point.)

Marsh grew up under Jim Crow. He had a ten-mile round-trip walk to his one-room schoolhouse—an awfully long trip for a seven-year-old—while white kids took a bus to a modern school. Marsh didn’t let racism hold him back. He didn’t just graduate from primary school, but went onto college. When he was a senior at Virginia Union University, the Byrd Machine was organizing “massive resistance”—shutting down public schools rather than comply with Brown v. Board of Education—and Marsh got involved, testifying against the policy before the General Assembly. In doing so, he met famed civil rights attorney Oliver Hill; at Hill’s encouragement, he got a degree in law from Howard University, and later went into private practice with Hill, focusing on civil rights law. Marsh and his practice were responsible for huge advances in civil rights over the decades, eliminating “separate but equal,” busing, and racial discrimination in hiring. Along the way he became the first black mayor of Richmond, and was elected to his Senate seat in 1991. Today he chairs the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission and created the Martin Luther King Jr. Living History and Public Policy Center.

So it bears repeating: today was a very big day for Henry Marsh. He must have taken a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his life’s work culminate in the first black president’s reelection, being sworn in on Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. It was a very, very good reason to miss a day’s session.

Today was also a big day for Senate Republicans. They knew that Henry Marsh would be at the inauguration today, and that the 20–20 split in the Senate would become a 20–19 split while Marsh was 100 miles north, among the throngs on the National Mall. So today was the day that they decided—without hearings, advertisements, notifications, or warnings—to take a chunk out of Marsh’s district, along with a handful of others, to ghettoize black voters in a majority-minority district and put 45% of voting-age citizens into new districts.

I sat in the Senate gallery, along with no more than perhaps a half-dozen other people, slack-jawed with confusion (tweeting all the while) as Republican Sen. John Watkins filibustered through the allotted 15 minutes to discuss what was advertised as the third reading of a pretty boring bill, making technical adjustments to district boundaries. Unbeknownst to anybody but the 20 Senate Republicans, the bill had been replaced with a radical redistricting, combining two senators into a single district (eliminating the district of 2009 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Creigh Deeds), reshuffling district boundaries throughout the state to absorb those changes (to Republicans’ apparent favor in a half-dozen districts), and creating a “black district.”

Senate Democrats tried repeatedly to get a word in, but they were blocked procedurally. A series of votes were held (votes about voting, votes about reconsidering voting about voting, and so on), all failing 20–19, during which a few people got to make remarks. One Democratic senator moved to simply put the vote off until tomorrow, so that there’d be time to read this brand-new bill. That vote failed 20–19. Another Democratic senator pointed out that this was simply unconstitutional (“[t]he General Assembly shall reapportion the Commonwealth into electoral districts in accordance with this section in the year 2011 and every ten years thereafter”). One Republican senator insisted that this was simply a racially sensitive improvement, since it was establishing a majority-minority district. Another Republican said that there was no need to hold hearings on this new redistricting, because they held hearings a few years ago, last time they redistricted. Yet it remained unclear throughout what, exactly, this bill did, though Democrats were frantically trying to figure that out as they stalled with round after round of procedural vote, a peeved Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling presiding over the whole affair. Finally there was nothing else to be done—the vote was held, and the bill passed, 20–19.

Lt. Gov Bolling says he would have voted against the bill, if it had been a tie. Which is surely why the bill was introduced today.

Senate Republicans’ MLK Day gift to Senator Marsh and to Virginia is to use the re-inauguration of the United States’ first black president as cover to pass a bill that will make it harder for black candidates to get elected.

Now the bill goes to the House of Delegates, who will no doubt pass it, and then to Gov. Bob McDonnell, who said he was as surprised by this bill as everybody else. We’re about to learn if McDonnell has really become the centrist he’s presenting himself as, or if he’s the same old right-wing extremist. I fear we already know the answer.

Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe can win. And yet one of them must.

When a candidate is described as “divisive,” generally it’s intended to mean that while his own party loves him, the other party can’t stand him. In what’s shaping up to be a race between Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli for the Virginia governorship, there are two wildly divisive candidates who are perhaps more divisive within their own parties than outside of it.

Four years ago, McAuliffe came in a distant second in a three-man race for the nomination for governor (despite raising $8M), won no geographic portion of Virginia, and endeared himself to nobody in the process. He’s never been elected to public office and has no constituency. The percentage of Democrats who would definitely not vote for him exceeds the percentage who would vote for him. That’s not in the primary—that’s in the general election. McAuliffe is a Clinton-era Democrat, the sort of old-school Democrat accustomed to winning elections by sucking up to power brokers, the sort who was purged from positions of power in the party round about 2005. It’s his turn to run for office, you see. He’s a glad-hander (it’s always “good to see you,” never “good to meet you”), always ready with the grip-and-grin. His performance at the 2009 Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner really said it all.

And the Bill Clinton thing. Good Lord, the Bill Clinton thing. Guess who McAuliffe just got off the phone with? Guess who he just played golf with? You know who told him the funniest thing the other day? McAuliffe cannot stop mentioning Clinton because it’s all he’s got. Terry McAuliffe : Bill Clinton :: Marge Simpson : Chanel suit.

McAuliffe’s business bona fides aren’t much better. Global Crossing. (Need I say more?) His current business, Greentech Automotive, recently established an auto plant…in Mississippi. Despite that McAuliffe knew full well that he’d be running for governor of Virginia, touting his business experience on a platform of creating jobs. (“The main reason Terry is running for Governor is to make it easier for companies to create jobs right here in Virginia,” says his spokesman.) Why didn’t he build the plant in Virginia? Oh, it’s not his fault—it’s the fault of Virginia Economic Development Partnership! “It was their decision,” McAuliffe spinelessly informed The Note. How was the location of his factory a decision of tiny state agency? They wouldn’t pay him enough to locate his plant in Virginia. Yes, McAuliffe believes that states should bid for businesses (an economic loser just about every time), even his own business, not by creating environments conducive to running businesses and recruiting employees, but by just offering cash. This, of course, is why this company was located in Hong Kong when he bought it—in a globalized economy, a lowest-bidder approach will leave manufacturing out of the U.S. permanently. Mississippi, you see, is the U.S.’s version of a third-world country. Perhaps McAuliffe will be running on a platform of making Virginia more like Mississippi? In their defense, VEDP says that McAuliffe never even completed their application. McAuliffe shopped around for a state in which to open a factory the same way that he shopped around for a state in which to run for governor. Virginia’s apparently great for running for governor, but not so great for building “cars” that are legally identical to golf carts.

Not one Democrat in a hundred is excited about McAuliffe. Democrats are fired up about him the same way that Republicans were fired up about Mitt Romney. The base will fake it through November and, if he loses, they’ll all say how they never really liked him in the first place. If he wins, of course, they always believed in him!

Then there’s Ken Cuccinelli. Christ, what an asshole. “Extremist” has seldom been a more suitable word to describe a candidate. He supports a no-exceptions ban on abortion, opposes homosexuality (period), thinks Virginia needs Arizona-style anti-immigration laws, believes that global climate change is a conspiracy theory, and thinks that President Obama didn’t really win reelection last month. He has 95% of the traits that have been laying waste to the Republican Party in recent years, save one—he’s not dumb. In fact, he’s an intelligent guy, and a too-common mistake made by Democrats is to believe that just because he professes wildly retrograde, utterly contra-factual beliefs, that he must be a fool. He is not. (This is in sharp contrast with Sarah Palin, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, etc., who, even collectively, are dumber than a sack of hammers.) Unlike McAuliffe, he actually has a base, and he’s been elected to office repeatedly. He represented Fairfax in the General Assembly for two terms and, of course, successfully ran for attorney general. While McAuliffe is a generic sort of a centrist-ish Democrat who is hobbled by a terrible personality and the perception that he’s a carpetbagger, Cuccinelli is hobbled by holding views that are wildly out of step with Virginians, Americans, and the facts. I’d guess about 20% of the electorate probably adores him, but far more deplore him (or will, come next October).

Cuccinelli is the sort of social conservative that’s driving a wedge into the Republican Party. Regular ol’ fiscally conservative Republicans have tolerated allowing this type into the tent so long as they’ve furthered the same collective goals, but it’s started to get embarrassing (e.g., the Tea Party). Those regular Republicans were victorious in the nomination process for the presidency this year, allowing Romney to defeat a field that consisted largely of crazies, but after Romney’s loss, it’s not clear which side will be running the party soon. Dick Armey’s departure from FreedomWorks (one of the the Koch-funded companies that created and bankroll the Tea Party) is the latest evidence that the conservative power brokers have lost control over their own creations—the inmates are running the asylum. Cuccinelli is proudly on the inmates’ side of the fence, and unless he’s prepared to tamp down that image, he’s going to have a tough time getting support from the kind of Republicans who supported Mark Warner over Jim Gilmore. This, of course, is why Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling is flirting with running as an independent. His is the wing of the party that thinks that the grassroots need to be trimmed back (to abuse a metaphor), the wing that Cuccinelli is going to have a tough time wooing, and a tougher time still if Bolling gets into the race.

Power-brokers on both sides are pooh-poohing talk of primary challengers and third-party candidacies. When former congressman Tom Perriello demurred a few days ago, that was the prompt for Democrats to declare that it’s time to get behind McAuliffe as our candidate. This has not been greeted with enthusiasm.

All of this reminds me of the Republican presidential nomination process in 2008 and 2012. Reviewing every candidate, there was a clear and obvious argument to be made as to why they couldn’t possibly win the nomination. And yet somebody had to win and, indeed, somebody did. Neither Cuccinelli nor McAuliffe can possibly win a gubernatorial election. And yet—unless somebody else enters the race—one of them will.

This is the worst kind of election, the kind in which a supermajority of the voters in each party have to support not their preferred candidate, but the one whom they loathe the least. (To be fair, this is how some voters feel about every election.) That may be what makes it such an ideal race for a solid third-party candidate like Bolling to take a run at election. Russ Potts’ 2005 gubernatorial candidacy was a threat to Republican nominee Jerry Kilgore, but there was never any danger of him winning the election. Republicans were OK with Kilgore, and Democrats liked Tim Kaine. Things are different this time. If Bolling can trim his sails a bit (he is a conservative Republican after all), he can take votes from both candidates, money from both sides, and I think it’s entirely possible for him to win. At least, then, it’ll be possible for somebody to win.

Government can’t create jobs. Except when McDonnell does it.

A press release from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office one year ago contained this quote:

If we’re going to lead America’s economic recovery, we have to remember that small business, not big government, creates jobs.

That’s a familiar refrain, heard often during the recent election, most frequently uttered by people seeking a job leading that very government that cannot create jobs.

A press release from McDonnell’s office today:

“The opening of the 495 Express Lanes means opportunity for Virginia,” said McDonnell. “The project not only helped create jobs during construction, but will continue to make Northern Virginia a more attractive place to work and live.”

Last year, McDonnell told us that government couldn’t create jobs. But today, he tells us that, it could and it did. I wonder what happened in the intervening year?

What’s next for the Republican Party after last night’s many defeats?

Barack Obama reelected by an overwhelming electoral vote. Both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost their home states. All the rah-rah-rape U.S. Senate Republicans defeated. George Allen defeated by Tim Kaine. Scott Brown defeated by Elizabeth Warren. Tommy Thompson defeated by Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate. Gay marriage approved in two, maybe three states. Recreational marijuana approved in two states. All of this forecast precisely in polling, polling that Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the very science of, utterly convinced that, mystically, Romney would win. The nation took a big step to the left, and everybody but the Republican Party saw it coming months ago.

Where does the Republican Party go from here? If past is prologue, it goes farther still to the right, finding yet more sciences to reject, new bogeymen on whom to blame their woes, new RINOs to eject from the party in ritual purification.

But if the grown-ups can step in, perhaps the Republican Party has a different future. They’ve got to tamp down the strong anti-intellectual strain in the party that makes it the welcoming home of Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin. Drop the battle against science and facts. Drop the fight against the demographic tide and stop opposing gay marriage and Latinos. And drop the no-taxes-ever schtick—often the opposite of fiscal conservatism—in favor of the economic conservatism that the Republican Party espoused for a century.

Equally important, Republicans in Congress need to stop putting their ideological opposition to some of the president’s policies before the good of the nation. Taking the nation to the brink of bankruptcy to make a muddled point, Mitch McConnell’s famed “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” remark, opposing every little thing just for the sake of opposing it. This is why Congress has a 10% approval rating, which ranks below support for the U.S. becoming a communist nation. They’ve got to start leading instead of opposing.

The country has changed. So has the Republican Party. But the two are moving in opposite directions. This nation needs a second party to participate in the political process. We’re facing some big problems right now, and we need two parties working towards solving them, rather than one working towards solutions while the other works towards undermining those solutions. I hope last night’s defeat will help the Republican Party become that party.

On the proposed constitutional amendments.

A lot of people have been asking me what the deal is with the two proposed constitutional amendments that we Virginians will be presented with Tuesday. Here’s a brief explanation of each.

Amendment 1: Eminent Domain

Shall Section 11 of Article I (Bill of Rights) of the Constitution of Virginia be amended (i) to require that eminent domain only be exercised where the property taken or damaged is for public use and, except for utilities or the elimination of a public nuisance, not where the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development; (ii) to define what is included in just compensation for such taking or damaging of property; and (iii) to prohibit the taking or damaging of more private property than is necessary for the public use?

That’s the question that will actually appear on the ballot. Here’s the text that would be added to the constitution:

That the General Assembly shall pass no law whereby private property, the right to which is fundamental, shall be damaged or taken except for public use. No private property shall be damaged or taken for public use without just compensation to the owner thereof. No more private property may be taken than necessary to achieve the stated public use. Just compensation shall be no less than the value of the property taken, lost profits and lost access, and damages to the residue caused by the taking. The terms “lost profits” and “lost access” are to be defined by the General Assembly. A public service company, public service corporation, or railroad exercises the power of eminent domain for public use when such exercise is for the authorized provision of utility, common carrier, or railroad services. In all other cases, a taking or damaging of private property is not for public use if the primary use is for private gain, private benefit, private enterprise, increasing jobs, increasing tax revenue, or economic development, except for the elimination of a public nuisance existing on the property. The condemnor bears the burden of proving that the use is public, without a presumption that it is.

This is in response to the 2005 Kelo v. New London decision, in which the Connecticut city condemned private land to transfer it to another private owner for an ostensibly higher economic purpose. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of New London, and the decision was not entirely well received by the public. In the 2007 session of the Virginia General Assembly, they responded to this decision by passing SB1296, which created § 1-219.1—Limitations on eminent domain, providing a narrow interpretation of the definition of “public use” as used in the constitution, so as to prohibit a New London-style taking. That settled the matter. And yet this proposed constitutional amendment.

A lesser problem with this amendment is that it doesn’t fit in at all with the rest of the constitution. Constitutions are for broad, simple statements to be built upon in statutory and case law. This amendment is very, very wordy, and very specific. It’s 250% as long as the Article I, Section 12, which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government. All too often, the legislature uses Virginia’s constitution as a dumping ground for reelection fodder, converting statutory laws into constitutional law to no apparent benefit (e.g., constitutional regulation of oyster beds—seriously).

This a poorly written, overly specific amendment that does nothing. It’s opposed by nearly every locality in Virginia. I intend to vote against it. It will almost certainly pass.

Amendment 2: Legislative Sessions

Shall Section 6 of Article IV (Legislature) of the Constitution of Virginia concerning legislative sessions be amended to allow the General Assembly to delay by no more than one week the fixed starting date for the reconvened or “veto” session when the General Assembly meets after a session to consider the bills returned to it by the Governor with vetoes or amendments?

The legislature meets in January and February, and then they go home for a while while the governor considers the bills that they passed. Then they get together again in early April, generally just for one day, to vote on whether they want to override any of the governor’s vetoes. They’re constitutionally required to meet on the sixth Wednesday after the session ends.

The problem here is that the veto session date often falls during Passover, the week-long Jewish high holiday. My guess is that there were zero Jews in the General Assembly when this bit of the constitution was written. That’s no longer the case. This amendment lets them pick a different day within a week of the constitutionally prescribed day. This amendment passed the House and Senate unanimously, and there is no organized public opposition to it (or disorganized opposition, that I know about). I can envision no harm in it, and I’m happy to support it.

Don’t average voters deserve a little representation?

Here’s the thing about Rep. Robert Hurt: he’s a perfectly average congressman.

It’s tough to campaign against average. There’s a reason why just a shade less than 100% of Congressmen seeking reelection are successful: they keep their mouths shut and try not to do anything, while their staff dutifully arranges tours of the Capitol, mails out American flags, and expedites agency responses to constituents’ requests.

Hurt is one of these congressman. In his first two years in office, he has passed no legislation, and introduced just four bills. He’s cast no brave votes. He’s taken no principled stands. He’s a standard nobody freshman, and as long as he remains in congress, he will continue to be a nobody in congress. He’s not a major figure in the district, certainly not nearly as visible as past congressmen. I’ll wager that there’s a solid majority of congress who could not pick him out of a two-man lineup.

(Keep in mind, being a nobody in congress still makes you a congressman. There are a few hundred nobodies in congress. It’s perfectly ordinary.)

The other day I got a slick, two-page mailer from Hurt—paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia—and nowhere on it does he mention that he’s a Republican. An informed voter would probably figure out that he’s a Republican, based on some of his positions, but a lot of people would have no idea. That’s the point.

Hurt stands in sharp contrast to our last two congressmen: Virgil H. Goode (D/I/R/C) and Tom Perriello (D). Like ‘em or not, nobody could doubt where these guys stood.

Goode was firmly against NAFTA, Muslims, the United Nations, and Mexican restaurants displaying the Mexican flag. He made national headlines on a few occasions, none for reasons that made the district look particularly good, but most of which I’ll wager he was proud of. Goode routinely took unpopular positions, and his legislative priorities were either bold or Quixotesque, depending on one’s perspective.

Perriello distinguished himself by being quantifiably the hardest-working member of Congress, holding more town hall meetings with constituents than any other member. He met with thousands of constituents to discuss healthcare reform, ultimately becoming a notably important vote in favor of the Obama administration’s overhaul. Perriello suspected that his vote would cost him his seat, and he was right—he was one of a handful of freshman Democrats across the U.S. who were unseated in 2010, losses that were attributed widely to backlash over healthcare reform. Casting that vote, knowing that it would cost him his seat, is the very definition of taking a principled stand, regardless of what one thinks of healthcare reform. Perriello introduced 23 bills in the same amount of time in which Hurt introduced four, with seven passing the House (three resolutions, four bills) and one (the Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act) passing into law.

Hurt has distinguished himself among this trio by doing absolutely nothing to distinguish himself.

You’ve got to feel for…Douglass? Is that name of the Democratic nominee? I truly cannot remember the name of the nominee. (I looked it up—yup, it’s John Douglass.) He’s got no purchase on Hurt. Sure, he can run against Hurt as a generic Republican, and that’s what he appears to be doing. This is effective in a wave election, or a demographic-shifting redistricting. but there’s no sign of the former and the latter does not describe last year’s redistricting, which did turn the Fifth District into a sociogeographically bizarre district, but it became only more conservative. Hurt was nominated two years ago by virtue of being the sole non-Tea-Party-aligned candidate, so he can’t even be tied to that fringe group’s fading fortunes.

President Obama has been rising in the polls in Virginia and nationally, and it’s certainly not impossible that he’ll win by the same landslide electoral college margin that he won in 2008. If that’s the case, it’s likewise not impossible that he’d bring Douglass along with him, if only because independents turned off by Mitt Romney’s incompetent campaign decide to toss in for some other Democrats as long as they’re in the booth.

Short of such an event, it’s tough to see how Hurt loses his seat any time soon. He’s got a district that was tailored to him and he’s unlikely to ever do anything interesting. Inertia is a powerful thing.

Hurt is failing his campaign promise of beating Perriello’s accessibility record.

With last week’s news that Rep. Robert Hurt was a no-show at the Senior Statesmen of Virginia’s candidates forum in Charlottesville, I think it’s time to revisit Hurt’s claim of accessibility two years ago, when he was running to unseat Rep. Tom Perriello:

Hurt was also asked if voters should expect him, if he is elected, to hold a similar number of town hall meetings as Perriello has over the last two years. During the run-up to the health care reform debate, Perriello held more town hall meetings with constituents than any other congressman.

Hurt declined to commit to holding a specific number of town hall meetings, but promised to listen to constituents.

“I can promise you this, I will certainly be as accessible if not more accessible than Congressman Perriello has been,” Hurt said.

Note the use of the word “promise.”

When I noted this at the time, I assumed that if Hurt won, I’d need to count his appearances to demonstrate that he was less accessible than Perriello, as he unquestionably would be. But now it’s clear that there’s simply no point—Hurt isn’t even in the same ballpark as Perriello was on this front.

Maybe Politifact can do the math on this one. I’m hopeful that the Daily Progress‘ change in ownership—along with the rest of Media General’s papers—might lead to an editorial board that will make endorsements and write editorials that perhaps vaguely align with the interests of the area. Perhaps they’ll see fit to revisit this claim.

New Virginia Decoded features.

Since March, my 9–5 job has been building The State Decoded, software based on my Virginia Decoded site. Although it would be fun to have spent all of this time adding new features to Virginia Decoded, most of it has been spent adapting the software to support a wide variety of legal structures. I released version 0.2 of the software earlier this week (3 weeks late!), and I’m on target to release version 0.3 next week. Which is to say that I’m finally getting to the point where I have a solid software base, and I’ve been able to start adding features to the core software that are making their way into Virginia Decoded.

Here are some of the new features that are worth sharing:

  • Newly backed by the Solr search engine (courtesy of the good folks at Open Source Connections, who did all of the work for free!), not only does the site have really great search now, but I’m able to start using that search index to do interesting things. The best example of that is the “Related Laws” box in the sidebar. For instance, § 2.2-3704.1—part of the state’s FOIA law—recommends § 30-179 as related. As well it should—that’s the law that spells out the powers of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council. But it’s found clear on the other side of the Code of Virginia—somebody would be unlikely to stumble across both of them normally, but it’s easy on Virginia Decoded. This is just the first step towards breaking down the traditional title/chapter/part divisions of the Code of Virginia.
  • Several hard-core Code readers have told me that they wish it were faster to flip around between sections. I agree—it should be super easy to go to the next and prior sections. Solution: I’ve bound those links to the left and right arrow keys on the keyboard. Just open a section and try out your arrow keys.
  • The indecipherable history sections at the bottom of each law are being translated into plain English. For instance, compare the text at the end of § 2.2-3705.2 on Virginia’s website and on Virginia Decoded. It’s an enormous improvement. This certainly isn’t perfect, but it will be with a few more hours of work.
  • Amendment attempts have detailed information. Whenever a law has had bills introduced into the General Assembly to amend them, whether or not those bills passed, they’re listed in the sidebar. That’s not new, what’s new is a bit of Ajax that pulls over details about those bills from Richmond Sunlight when you pass your mouse over each bill number, showing you the bill’s sponsor, his party, where he represents, and the full summary of the bill. (For example, see § 9.1-502.) This is one step closer to providing an unbroken chain of data throughout the process of a bill becoming law (becoming a court ruling).

There’s a lot more coming, now that I’ve just about got a solid platform to add features to, but these few were just too good not to mention.

Sunlight Foundation “OpenGov Champion.”

The Sunlight Foundation has put together a very kind mini-documentary about my open government technology work. (I can’t see that any of its contents will come as news to anybody who reads this blog.) It was fun to participate in the making of it, and it was a joy to watch filmmakers Tiina Knuutila and the aptly named Solay Howell at work throughout the process. I’m a big fan of the Sunlight Foundation (they funded the addition of video to Richmond Sunlight in the first place), and it’s flattering that they’d even be institutionally aware of me.

Congress declines to let people download copies of bills.

From the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations comes their annual report on spending on the legislature, this one for the 2012–2013 fiscal year. It includes this gem of a section (on pages 17–18) on proposed spending to let people download copies of bills:

During the hearings this year, the Committee heard testimony on the dissemination of congressional information products in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. XML permits data to be reused and repurposed not only for print output but for conversion into ebooks, mobile web applications, and other forms of content delivery including data mashups and other analytical tools. The Committee has heard requests for the increased dissemination of congressional information via bulk data download from non-governmental groups supporting openness and transparency in the legislative process. While sharing these goals, the Committee is also concerned that Congress maintains the ability to ensure that its legislative data files remain intact and a trusted source once they are removed from the Government’s domain to private sites.

The GPO currently ensures the authenticity of the congressional information it disseminates to the public through its Federal Digital System and the Library Congress’s THOMAS system by the use of digital signature technology applied to the Portable Document Format (PDF) version of the document, which matches the printed document. The use of this technology attests that the digital version of the document has not been altered since it was authenticated and disseminated by GPO. At this time, only PDF files can be digitally signed in native format for authentication purposes. There currently is no comparable technology for the application and verification of digital signatures on XML documents. While the GPO currently provides bulk data access to information products of the Office of the Federal Register, the limitations on the authenticity and integrity of those data files are clearly spelled out in the user guide that accompanies those files on GPO’s Federal Digital System.

The GPO and Congress are moving toward the use of XML as the data standard for legislative information. The House and Senate are creating bills in XML format and are moving toward creating other congressional documents in XML for input to the GPO. At this point, however, the challenge of authenticating downloads of bulk data legislative data files in XML remains unresolved, and there continues to be a range of associated questions and issues: Which Legislative Branch agency would be the provider of bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML, and how would this service be authorized. How would “House” information be differentiated from “Senate” information for the purposes of bulk data downloads in XML? What would be the impact of bulk downloads of legislative data in XML on the timeliness and authoritativeness of congressional information? What would be the estimated timeline for the development of a system of authentication for bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML? What are the projected budgetary impacts of system development and implementation, including potential costs for support that may be required by third party users of legislative bulk data sets in XML, as well as any indirect costs, such as potential requirements for Congress to confirm or invalidate third party analyses of legislative data based on bulk downloads in XML? Are there other data models or alternative that can enhance congressional openness and transparency without relying on bulk data downloads in XML?

Accordingly, and before any bulk data downloads of legislative information are authorized, the Committee directs the establishment of a task force composed of staff representatives of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Clerk of the House, the Government Printing Office, and such other congressional offices as may be necessary, to examine these and any additional issues it considers relevant and to report back to the Committee on Appropriations of the House and Senate.

This is bullshit.* Either that or congress is relying on advisors who are simultaneously very smart and very stupid. What congress fears here is actually none of these things, but instead they are afraid of the fact that it is 2012. By not providing bulk downloads of legislation, they’re requiring that Josh Tabuerer keep scraping its text off their website to post at GovTrack.us, from which all of other other open congress websites get their text. If Josh wants to verify that the version of a bill that he has is accurate, he’s out of luck. There’s no master copy. For all technical purposes, congress is silent on what their bills say. (I have this same problem with Virginia legislation on Richmond Sunlight.) For Appropriations to argue that releasing legislation as XML presents potential problems with the accuracy of the circulated text is to pretend that a) there’s already a healthy ecosystem of unauthorized bulk congressional legislative data and b) that their failure to participate in that ecosystem is the source of any accuracy problems, and that by providing data themselves, then it becomes technologically trivial to verify the accuracy of a copy of a bill.

The Sunlight Foundation just posted a detailed rebuttal to the claims in this study, which go into more detail than I’m prepared to.

This is a real embarrassment, both to congress and to the United States. I’ve got a bit of experience in the federal data realm, and I can tell you that in the realm of open data, compared to the White House, Congress is trapped in the stone age. Now we see that they intend to stay there.

* Note that I am using a very specific definition of “bullshit”; in short, a false statement that both the speaker and the listener know to be untrue.