New search engine offers better access to Congress

Associated Press Modified: September 19, 2012 at 11:47 am •  Published: September 19, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress unveiled a new search engine Wednesday to help politicos, lobbyists, researchers, students and any other interested citizens find legislation working its way through the House and Senate to become new laws.

The Library of Congress says the new website Congress.gov is in beta form and will eventually replace the THOMAS legislative search system after a year of fine-tuning the new system.

The new site is more like Google, with one box to search all data. It can filter search results like a shopping site with categories of merchandise. In this case, it can narrow search results by year, by subject, by House or Senate or other factors.

Congress.gov also is mobile friendly for Capitol Hill staffers glued to their Blackberries. It was built with responsive design technology to automatically rearrange a search screen to fit on a smartphone.

This is Congress' first new search engine since THOMAS was launched in 1995 after just three weeks of development when the Internet was in its infancy.

"It's like comparing a tricycle to a Cadillac," said Jim Karamanis, the library's chief of web services, before a test drive of the new site. "The web was not very advanced" when THOMAS was created.

THOMAS, named for Thomas Jefferson, gets 10 million visits each year. But the library found many users outside the political world didn't know what THOMAS was. The 17-year-old search system became slow and outdated, and it required insider knowledge to navigate.

For example, a search of "health care reform" on THOMAS only scans bill summaries for actions in the current Congress, and it returns a funding bill among other results — not President Barack Obama's signature health care law. Searching past congressional actions is a separate function, and finding the text of a bill is three links deep in the old site.

The new search engine, built by the library's tech and legislative experts, is more intuitive, designers said. It was developed entirely in-house with open source technology. Contracting out the project would have likely cost millions.

Now a search of "health care reform" on the new site scans bill texts, summaries and statuses and all available congressional years at the same time. Obama's health care law immediately rises to the top of the results.