The Government Domain: GovTrack.us: Under Development

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).


GovTrack.us is a free, publicly available, privately run, open-government-advocating web service in good company with such sites as Project Vote Smart and CitizenJoe. GovTrack debuted quietly in September 2004, then hit the big time with mentions in BusinessWeek and the New York Times (registration required). The attention-getting feature is this: GovTrack will send you a notice via email or RSS feed when official legislative websites such as THOMAS report that action has occurred on legislation of interest to you.

GovTrack was launched as a personal project of Josh Tauberer, a first-year grad student at the University of Pennsylvania. As he plainly states on the site, GovTrack “was created and is maintained by Joshua Tauberer in his spare time.” That type of statement alone is usually enough to motivate me to smile, move on, and let the developers tinker. I appreciate brilliant and creative individuals, but I also appreciate stable, market-tested information resources. I was lured out of my information elitism by GovTrack’s email alert feature—something that members of Congress have asked the Library of Congress to provide on THOMAS.



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Here’s how it works.  First, if you want to receive email notices, you must register.  Next, find a legislative topic that you would like to track.  You can track a bill number, bills on a topic (as indicated by the indexing term assigned to the bill on the THOMAS system), or bills assigned to a particular committee. All of these options are under the Legislation menu tab.



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To set yourself up to track H.R. 3, for example, select Search Legislation. Enter the bill number, and search. GovTrack’s information on the bill will display with a ‘Monitor’ button for you to click.”

When THOMAS reports new action on the bill, a notice will arrive in your email. If you’d like to add an RSS feed to your website or to your own news reader, click on the Tracked Events link that appears in the Monitor box. The Tracked Events display has the orange XML and Sub Bloglines icons familiar to RSS users, along with an option to “embed these events on your own website.”

GovTrack’s sources and related caveats are described in simple terms in the About section:

GovTrack gets its information from THOMAS the official website for the status of legislation at the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Senate and U.S. House websites, the official sources for voting records. The committee hearing schedule is obtained through this Senate page and THOMAS's daily digest [ed. note: the Congressional Record Daily Digest], for the House.

 

Information is retrieved from these sites on a daily basis. Though the process is entirely automatic, there may be errors because the U.S. government does not provide this information in a computer-understandable format. For instance, THOMAS and the chamber websites refer to some congressmen with different first names (e.g. Tom versus Thomas). GovTrack has been programmed to do its best to figure out what these websites are conveying, but the process is not perfect.

 

Updates are delayed by several days because the U.S. Government Printing Office often takes several days to post the full information for government bills. GovTrack is generally two days behind in all information.

Email or RRS notices include the date and type of action, a brief excerpt from the source, and identification of the monitor (or “tracked event”) that picked up the action report. Here are some sample notices I received when tracking H.R. 3 and H.R. 841:  

Mar 8, 2005 - Committee Hearing

House Rules

To consider H.R. 3, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users -- 4 p.m.

H.R. 3: To authorize funds for Federal-aid highways, highway safety programs, and transit programs, and for other purposes

This event matches: H.R. 3: To authorize funds for Federal-aid highways, highway safety programs, and transit...

 

Mar 3, 2005 - House Debate

Continuity In Representation Act of 2005: IN THE COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE

Excerpt: "...March 1, the Committee on Rules met and granted a structured rule for H.R. 841, the Continuity in Representation Act of 2005. I believe this is a fair rule that allows for a full discussion of the relevant points pertaining..."

This event matches: H.R. 841: To require States to hold special elections to fill vacancies in the House of...

 

Mar 3, 2005 - House Debate

Continuity In Representation Act of 2005

Excerpt: "...I inadvertently missed rollcall vote 52 on the final passage of H.R. 841, 'Continuity in Representation Act.' Had I been present, I would have voted 'aye.'"

H.R. 841: "...I inadvertently missed rollcall vote 52 on the final passage of H.R. 841, "Continuity in Representation Act." Had I been present, I would have voted "aye.""

This event matches: H.R. 841: To require States to hold special elections to fill vacancies in the House of...

 

Mar 3, 2005 - Bill Action

H.R. 841: To require States to hold special elections to fill vacancies in the House of...

Passed House

Roll Call: Passed 329/68, 37 not voting. Bipartisan support.

Rep. Roy Blunt [R-MO]: Aye

This event matches: H.R. 841: To require States to hold special elections to fill vacancies in the House of...

Rep. Blunt’s vote is highlighted in this last item, above, because I was also tracking his actions.

My conclusion after using this free email alert service: GovTrack fills the bill for the average concerned citizen the website creator had in mind. Because of the time lag in the email notification, as described above, anyone with daily responsibility for tracking federal legislation will still need to monitor official sources such as the Congressional Record Daily Digest first hand. And anyone with room in the budget will not want to abandon the more sophisticated alerts provided by such commercial services as CQ.com and GalleryWatch.com.

[Editor's NoteGalleryWatch.com recently introduced new update services for subscribers only: the Gallery Watch Hot Docs service is provided by email in HTML format (and via RSS); and RSS feeds for eight features including Daily Press Releases, Daily Committee Schedules, and Daily CRS Reports.  More feeds will be added in coming months.  These comprehensive, continually updated tracking and monitoring features are highly recommended for researchers whose work involves keeping current with legislation and government documents.]

Although email alerts are its big draw, there is more to GovTrack. Search GovTrack with a specific bill number from the current congress and you will also retrieve postings from around the blogosphere that mention the bill. It is an interesting view into blog content, but the system isn’t perfect. A search on S. 5 finds a blog entry that mentions "Wisconsins 5% sales tax…”—a false drop, as searchers used to say. But part of GovTrack’s agenda is to get bloggers, at least those who register with GovTrack, to properly tag their legislation-related entries with the relevant bill number. (Wouldn’t it be nice if the major newspapers would do this?) GovTrack has not yet asked bloggers to tag entries with the congress number, however, so your search on S. 5 could find comments on S. 5 of the 109th, dealing with class action lawsuits, as well as comments on S. 5 of the 108th, which made various welfare reform proposals.

The merits of the blog entries can also be debated. I looked at the entries GovTrack displayed for S. 256, the bankruptcy bill. I had wanted to take a screenshot of that page for this article, but the language of some of the bloggers was a little too strong for a general audience. There are plenty of web resources and blogs that would provide more insight into the S. 256 debate than the entries displayed by GovTrack, but I suppose openness is one of the principles behind GovTrack. If those better blogs want to register with GovTrack and be seen, they can.

Aside from the blogs, a major source of content for GovTrack is campaign contribution data from OpenSecrets.org (which in turn gets its data from the Federal Election Commission). For each bill, GovTrack displays the major donors for the sponsors or co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, GovTrack creator Josh Tauberer has bigger goals. He wants more consistent mark-up for government data, such as that provided by THOMAS, so that citizen web services developers like him can continue to build links between political content from disparate sources. He was recently in Washington promoting this cause and meeting the players, and it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. Unfortunately, while Josh was in DC, the website was having technical difficulties. I was unable to log in for several days, although my email alerts kept coming. Fine and noble enterprise that it is, GovTrack is still a personal project—freely provided—and does not offer the stability one would expect from a large commercial service. Nevertheless, if the email/RSS service or the general concept of GovTrack is appealing to you, you’ll want to give it a try.