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Even websites have birthdays: Congress’ just turned 10

From big dreams to party crashers, the early days were eventful

Jim Karamanis, left, and Andrew Weber remember the “massive” task of building a new website for Congress. Above, they pose last week in the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building.
Jim Karamanis, left, and Andrew Weber remember the “massive” task of building a new website for Congress. Above, they pose last week in the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

For Jim Karamanis, things started to feel real when he got a look at the renderings for Congress’ brand-new website.

“It was very much an ‘ooh ahh,’ because none of us had seen it,’” said Karamanis, director of IT design and development at the Library of Congress. “Suddenly it was tangible, it wasn’t just an idea.”

The year was 2011, the internet was younger, and his developers had a big task ahead — completely rebuilding the online home of the legislative branch, and giving it a new address too. Thomas.gov would become Congress.gov.

“Congress.gov is the foundation for all of the big changes we dreamed of making to Thomas but couldn’t because of the older, fragile infrastructure,” wrote library employee Andrew Weber in September 2012 as the finished product went live. 

The site, maintained by the library at the request of Congress, turned 10 this month and remains the first stop for the public to search for bills, vote totals and other pieces of data the legislative branch generates and stores. It sits at the center of some fierce battles about the transparency and accessibility of Congress.

A decade later, Weber looks back on that blog post with fondness. He continues to help run the site, and the story isn’t done yet, he said. Ten years is pretty much an eternity in internet years, but Congress.gov is still a work in progress.

“We still listen to feedback and do the next set of development cycles based on what people are asking for,” Weber said. “My favorite … was back-to-back, ‘This site is awesome.’ And then the next one was, ‘This site sucks.’ You can’t please everybody.” 

Mr. Smith goes to cyberspace

Thomas was born in early 1995 to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Long an enthusiast about cyberspace,” the Georgia Republican was one of 43 members of the House and Senate to have an email address, according to a report that year in The New York Times.

Titled “Mr. Smith Goes to Cyberspace,” the Times story portrayed Gingrich as a populist crusader intent on getting Congress’ reams of paper online — or as he put it, spreading “information beyond the cynicism of the elite.” The announcement was met with yawns from an already-online White House whose then-Vice President Al Gore touted his Senate work on internet-related bills. 

There were growing pains for Thomas, which was unreachable by many who hadn’t yet purchased expensive computers. There was a hacking incident, and some analog practices turned out to be problematic in the digital age — like using social security numbers to identify military officers in the Congressional Record.

But as those kinks were worked out, Thomas still began to age out after two decades. The site accessed data like a librarian who had to run from room to room to find where different items were stored. Some of the biggest annoyances for users and congressional staff involved its underwhelming search function. 

“If I emailed you the link to the search, and you didn’t open that link in the five minutes after I ran the search, it would do nothing,” Weber said.

Still, Karamanis was taken aback in that initial project meeting when developers got their orders to raze and rebuild the site.

“Honestly, we were a bit shocked,” said Karamanis, a former tech consultant who had migrated into government. “Because the scope of it just seemed so massive.”

API and beyond 

For library employees like Weber, who focused less on the technical side and more on the tantalizing promise of making Congress’ work easier for the public to find, it felt like a time of unlimited possibility.

“I was just excited,” he said.

The new site not only connected users to more data than Thomas could, but was designed in the era of phones and tablets, devices unimaginable to developers who gazed at monitors made of bulky glass tubes back in the 1990s. 

More than 1.5 million digital items now appear on Congress.gov, and annual visits have increased by almost 2,200 percent since its launch. In the last fiscal year the site saw more than 40 million visits, according to the library. 

Those visitors include not only Americans curious about a new bill or the goings-on in Congress, but also those of a nonhuman variety with a mission to scrape the site for bits of data. 

Computer traffic tends to slow down the site, and with Congress’ blessing the library unveiled an application programming interface in early September, allowing data seekers to access it directly instead of having to iterate through the site’s pages. 

The long-sought API feature was something that Karamanis had hoped to incorporate into the site since its inception, but got pushback from lawmakers who have a say over how data is shared.  

“We weren’t allowed to do it, because Congress wasn’t ready for it,” he said. “But now Congress wants to do it. They want to be transparent. And that’s allowed us to implement the technology.”

Party crashers

Advocates haved called on the legislative branch to see Congress.gov as not just another website, but a crucial way for the public to keep tabs on the people’s house. For them, transparency and accessibility are the key words.

“Congress.gov must focus on addressing how people follow and engage in the legislative process” and innovate to anticipate future needs, said Daniel Schuman, policy director for Demand Progress.  

Schuman has been in this fight from the beginning. If you go back to Weber’s old blog post in 2012 and scroll down to the bottom, the first name in the comments section is none other than Daniel Schuman.

The “beta website is very impressive, and the entire team … should be commended,” he wrote back then, before urging more public involvement and “bulk access to the underlying legislative information.”  

“I hope you get a chance to enjoy your accomplishment before getting back to work,” he added.

Schuman was working for the Sunlight Foundation in those days, and when he heard about a private party to celebrate the site launch, he decided to crash it with a colleague.

“They were nonplussed but eventually and graciously let us in,” he recalled. “It seemed like an apt metaphor at the time.”

Things have improved, said Schuman, and now advocates can bring their concerns directly to legislative branch employees through the newly permanent Congressional Data Task Force.

“The advocates feel like they are now in the room,” Schuman said.

He wants to see quicker turnaround times for bill postings, tools to compare bills, improved calendar functions, and other changes to the site that would help members of the public see what Congress is doing in real time — or closer to it.

“It all boils down to the library’s leadership empowering the Congress.gov team to engage in permissionless innovation and respond to the needs of users,” Schuman said. 

Karamanis and Weber said they’re working on some of those features, like bill comparison tools. For them, the 10-year anniversary of Congress.gov has been a time to look both back and forward.

“Can I say what the site will look like in 10 years? No, because web design trends change over time,” Karamanis said. “But we have the funding and the resources on staff to continue to modernize.”

Editor’s Note: Roll Call’s parent company FiscalNote is also the owner of CQ, which operates a legislative tracking subscription service.

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