The Government Domain: Tracking Congress 2.0By Peggy Garvin, Published on August 31, 2009
The 111th Congress of the United States reconvenes on September 8th. Get ready with these new tools and sources for following the action.
GovTrack.us, a free and independent legislative database, has just released a number of new features:
- Pages for individual bills now show industry supporters and opponents as determined by MAPLight.org, another free and independent site. (New to MAPLight? See the MAPLight FAQ.)
- Bills affected by a cloture vote link to yet another free website, Filibusted.us, which specializes in explaining and tracking Senate filibusters.
- Pages for members of Congress now show their latest tweets if they are on Twitter.
- The login accepts your existing GovTrack ID or--recommended for new users--your account ID for Google, Yahoo, AOL, or OpenID. (Logging in allows you to establish “trackers,” email or RSS alerts for action on a bill, or new information on a member of Congress or committee.)
- GovTrack also has upgraded hardware to handle its growing popularity.
For information on all of the changes at Govtrack, see the blog posting Summer Site Updates. This is not new, but Govtrack also has a few widgets allowing you to embed content such as a bill’s status or a congressional district map on your web page; for details, see the Widgets page. Others have developed Facebook apps based on Govtrack’s database; for these, see the Tracking and Sharing Tools page.
OpenCongress.org also got a summer makeover. OpenCongress is a free, nonpartisan project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. One of the best features of OpenCongress is their parsing of bill texts so that users can link to a specific section within a bill and also comment on a specific section. Take a look at the most-viewed bill on OpenCongress (Can you guess which?). The link to the text appears in the upper right corner of the bill page. When viewing the text of this or other bills, find the section you need and mouse over the little blue graphic in the right margin to go to a comment form or to get the permanent link. [ (The link feature originates from GovTrack, which added this and other bill viewing features [http://www.govtrack.us/blog/2008/12/20/site-updates-in-september-december-2008/] last year.)] Some new features on OpenCongress:
- OpenCongress users who register (free) and log in can now compare how their congressional representative voted with how the user and people in the user’s district would have voted. To do so, log in and click the Watchdog button.
- Each bill’s page has a Money Trail tab showing groups supporting or opposing the bill and who these groups supported with campaign contributions. The pages for each member of Congress show campaign contributions aggregated by type of interest group. These features and a Money Trail section incorporate data from MAPLight and OpenSecrets.org.
- A Racetracker wiki section follows developments in the 2010 congressional elections by asking for input from OpenCongress users.
GovTrack and OpenCongress are prominent, free legislative information services tracking bills and members of Congress. But what happens when the bill leaves Capitol Hill for the White House? The Open House Project of the Sunlight Foundation covered that topic lightly in the blog posting What happens after a bill becomes a law. Readers of LLRX.com already know much of this, but scroll down to the last paragraph; did you know that the Office of the Law Revision Counsel is twittering? Their twitter feed provides notice when the text of a new public law has been classified to show how it affects the U.S. Code. This information also appears on the site’s Classification Tables page. Other executive action resources include:
- The publiclaws Twitter feed from Sunlight Labs announcing when new public law numbers are assigned by the National Archives’ Office of the Federal Register, and
- Presidential Signing Statements RSS feed providing notice of signing statements. The website creator, a lawyer running the site on her own, says the purpose of the site is “to provide an objective, nonpartisan, and reliable research tool for reporters, scholars, lawyers, and anyone who is interested in signing statements.”
Congress tweets. Several non-congressional sites make it easier to follow the tweets of members of Congress:
- TweetCongress.org offers a directory of members of Congress on Twitter, with links to their official accounts. You can browse the current twitterstream of all accounts and also search them by keyword, a handy way to find breaking congressional news. On separate pages, TweetCongress also displays the photos and videos tweeted by Congress members.
- The Hill’s Twitter Room features a blog about current tweets from members of Congress. The blog reports the “Top Tweets” of the day and comments on congressional tweet trends. Think of it as a congressional tweeter’s digest.
Tweeting about legislation? Josh Tauberer of GovTrack recommends use of the hashtag #usbill and a hashtag with the bill number (as in #hr3200). With the tags, more legislation 2.0 sites like Govtrak can match them with other bill information.
HouseFloor and SenateFloor, created by independent web developer Tim McGhee, tweet House floor activity and Senate votes, respectively. For Senate floor activity, Senate political news, and everything Senate all the time, turn to twitter.com/senatus, a nonpartisan private citizen effort.
Several official legislative websites have useful RSS feeds. THOMAS just launched feeds for House floor action and Senate floor action. THOMAS also has an RSS feed of the Daily Digest section of the Congressional Record, an essential tool for keeping up. The House Rules Committee, the power center in the House, also has an RSS feed.
Finally, while it does not yet offer RSS feeds, the Government Printing Office FDsys site replacing GPO Access this year does offer the ability to search across many types of full text congressional content (such as bills, reports, and the Congressional Record) and across multiple congresses.