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A Congress.gov Interview with Andy Mendelson, Head of the Legislative Analysis and Information Section

The following is a guest post by Kimberly Ferguson, Specialist in Legislative Information Systems Management in the Library of Congress.  Kimberly previous blogged about “Bills To Be Considered on the House Floor” Repository for In Custodia Legis.

This week’s interview is with Andy Mendelson, a manager of legislative information at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Andy’s contributions to Congress.gov include bill summaries, lots of metadata, and legislative process expertise.

Describe your background.

I was born in pre-hip Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was a history major at what used to be much more commonly called Harpur College, State University of New York at Binghamton, and then went to law school at Temple University. Earlier, a great high school English teacher changed my life by insisting that her students read literature both respectfully and critically and make sense when we talk about it. I thought I was going to be a journalist and knew early on that I had no intention of practicing law.

I was much more interested in the language of laws because of how powerful that can be, yet how deceptively simple it can appear. My first job was with a publisher under contract to a state legislature. We overhauled and rewrote the state’s code; today that publisher is known as LexisNexis. One section then still on the books regulated how many indentured servants could be chained together at the same time; another I wrote about put unconstitutional restrictions on public safety employees. I was intrigued to learn that language, law, and public policy intersected at CRS.

How would you describe your job to other people?

I’m the editor in charge of a very busy publishing operation, and manage a staff that tracks, analyzes, and adds valuable metadata to every version of every piece of federal legislation.  Members, their staffs, and the public rely heavily upon timely and accurate bill summaries of legislative texts.  Those texts are dramatically unlike the kinds of documents most writers and analysts routinely encounter.  Legislative texts can be assemblages of writing styles, amendments, fragments of statutes, wide ranges of policy concerns, and even emotions. No one who examines a bill closely during the day can say they haven’t learned something.

I take the roles of editor and manager equally seriously. Both require constant scrutiny of content and attention to the operation and development of sophisticated technical systems used to write about, publish, and manage information.

What was your role in the development of Congress.gov?

My section is part of CRS’s Office of Congressional Information and Publishing and our stake in Congress.gov’s success is enormous. We’re intensive creators of legislative content as well as constant users of the wealth of information provided by Congress.gov. My team writes bill summaries (an average of over 16,000 per Congress), monitors data flow with the House and Senate, and adds many other valuable pieces of information – - like bill relationships, titles, links to the Congressional Record, and subject terms.

My most major, and fun, contribution is to the development of a modern legislative subject terms system. A small, nimble pool of primary subject terms broadly gathers large bodies of legislation while a larger set of legislative subjects reliably groups measures by policy concern. Our initial goal is for all bills from 1973 forward to be classified by a stable, consistently applied vocabulary that can be trusted across many Congresses. For most of the past 75 years (before the full texts of bills could be searched online) bills had been classified by many thousands of specific subject terms. I also consult on such things as explanatory language, functionality, and navigation.

What is your favorite feature of Congress.gov?

I love that bill summaries are now so prominently posted (but I’m selfish). It’s both a recognition of how truly valuable these are and an extra nudge to get us to always do a better job.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the legislative process while working on Congress.gov?

I’ve worked here a long time and learned this well before Congress.gov was developed: The shape and content of legislation can shift drastically and with little notice, sometimes even taking its originators by surprise. [What became known as the Affordable Care Act started life as a small bill providing a tax credit for military personnel.]

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.

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