I’ll be on the Kojo Nnamdi show at noon today, which is on WAMU 88.5 in the DC area, and I think you can also listen online.
The GovTrack blog includes site news and occasional analysis of U.S. legislation.
So far this year we’ve had 4,288 bills introduced in the Congress. That puts our congressmen and senators on track for a banner year in terms of number of bills introduced, and probably for fewest bills enacted too.
Here’s how the numbers break down so far: 20 bills have been enacted this year so far. 7 bills have come to a vote but failed. (It’s rare that bills fail because party leadership doesn’t bother to call for votes on bills they know they don’t have the votes for.) Another 305 bills have had some sort of substantive action such as coming out of committee or having a vote in one chamber but not yet in the other. The remaining 3,956 are waiting for their moment to shine —- it’s up to the committee chair in the committee they are assigned to to bring the bill up for consideration.
Congress operates in two-year terms. 2011 is the first year of the “112th Congress”. The table below shows the breakdown for the last 13 years.
|Congress||No Major Action||Some Action||Failed||Enacted|
|106th (1999-2000)||7460||922||28||558 (6%)|
|107th (2001-2002)||7750||841||5||350 (4%)|
|108th (2003-2004)||7045||932||13||476 (6%)|
|109th (2005-2006)||9141||930||22||465 (4%)|
|110th (2007-2008)||9218||1382||39||442 (4%)|
|111th (2009-2010)||9239||998||26||366 (3%)|
|112th (so far)||3956||305||7||20 (0.5%)|
Just keep in mind that the 112th Congress is only 1/4th over, so the comparison to other years is tricky. Since 1999, Congress has been consistently passing about 5% of the bills it introduces, though it’s been introducing substantially more since 2005. The 103rd-108th Congresses (1993-2004) were actually more of a temporary lull. Before that, in the 102nd Congress, Congress introduced 9600 bills. So we’re not really seeing a general upward trend here in number of bills introduced, just a return to what had been fairly normal in years before.
The number above include bills (“H.R.” and “S.” bills) and exclude resolutions because they don’t go through the same life cycle and generally don’t end up being enacted as law.
In January I decided to start over. GovTrack has been doing well since it launched almost seven years ago, but the site has gotten to be such a mess in its internals that I haven’t been able to create new cool things for a long time. At the start of this year I decided to start a long process of creating a new and better GovTrack 2.0 from scratch. What you see today are some design changes that came out of that process, a half-way step between the old and the new.
For GovTrack 2.0 I hired a new designer and two new developers, and I’m excited for what’s in store. But it’s going to be a while longer before it’s done, so thanks for your patience!
Today I am publishing two new types of statistics for understanding the behavioral relationships between Members of Congress. The first is a new approach to the leader-follower scores, based on the same algorithm Google uses to rank pages on the web. The second statistic is an update to my political spectrum graph. New charts are presented at the end.
Although I’m a programmer, I also consider myself a journalist. GovTrack reports on what is happening in Congress day by day — even if the reporting is just a nice presentation of a lot of raw, unedited facts about legislation. But I often lament the lack of a human touch, which is why in January I started , now on a bit of a hiatus.
I need your help. The nation needs your help. We all need to be reporters.
So here it is: The Summer Citizen Reporter Contest brought to you by GovTrack will award up to $1,500 in cash prizes for getting an interview with your congressperson or senator on your mobile phone video camera (or a better camera, if you have one). Here’s how it will work:
- Are you taking a trip to our nation’s capital this summer? If not, this contest is not for you! You’ll need to be in DC for this at a time when Congress is in session. UPDATE: You can now conduct the interview either in DC or in your home district.
- You must apply to participate in the contest by emailing email@example.com. The reason is that I want to make sure that no two people are planning to interview the same person, and I want to help grease the wheels so you can get an interview. Submit a few questions to me that you think you would like to ask your representative. I’ll give some feedback.
- If you score an interview, you will be eligible for a prize. 1st place will be $750 cash and three runner-up prizes will be $250 each.
- The interviews will be judged on the quality of the response
. That means you have to choose fair, civil questions that are most likely to get good answers! If you go in to complain you’ll probably just get a brief goodbye. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do a little muckraking. The best responses will be those that address substantive issues, especially with a local aspect.
- The contest will close on the last day of September. That’s because Congress will be in recess from around Aug 9 to Sept 10. (Yes, I should probably have started this contest sooner!)
- Any videos submitted must be Creative Commons licensed so they can be freely shared.
- I’ll judge or I may appoint judges.
I hope you’ll participate!
If you’re a mobile wonk, you’ll be interested to know about the new Congress app which lets you browse bill status from your Android phone. Built by the Sunlight Foundation () and based on GovTrack’s legislative database, the free app is constantly being improved and is very cool.
Search for Congress
in the App Market.
The features (copied from Sunlight’s page):
- Read the latest bills, laws, and see what bills were recently voted on.
- Find members of Congress by using your phone’s location, a zipcode, a last name, or a state.
- Read tweets and watch videos from members’ Twitter and YouTube accounts.
- Reply to a member of Congress on Twitter from within the app, using your own account.
- Read the latest news about them, using the .
Today’s question comes from Gwen who asks:
Who actually writes the bills that the members of congress sponsor and vote for?
This is no simple question and the answer involves many different sorts of people. To get the facts straight, I turned to an ex-staffer, Marci Harris, who just recently worked on the health care legislation in Rep. Pete Stark’s office and had the following to say. (If you want the short answer, there’s a summary at the end.)
Ideas for Bills
There are lots of little bills pending at any time before both the House and Senate, and the ideas behind these small bills come from many sources. Lots of bills start as news clippings: a Member may read a newspaper article and come in the next morning and tell his staffer to draft a bill to address the issue. And it’s not hard to imagine the origins of bills that would require or . Others originate from a constituent letter about a particularly compelling issue, or a request from a professional advocate representing a trade association, union, nonprofit, or corporation.
Turning to Staff Lawyers
When a staffer is drafting the bill (either at the Member’s direction, or to pull something together to propose to the Member), they will send a request to the House or Senate’s Office of Legislative Counsel (OLC or “Leg Counsel”) and be assigned a lawyer to work with on turning the idea into legislative language. One of the best analogies I have heard for the who and how of writing laws is a comparison to computer programming. Lots of people may have an idea of what would be a good software application, but only someone who knows the language of the code can actually write the app in a way that works and can be executed. So, going with the analogy, the “programmers” in Congress are the lawyers in the OLC, who are completely professional, absolutely unpartian, are around longer than most Members of Congress, and could be making bazillions in the private sector.
OLC’s lawyers turn plain language such as “insurers should not be able to drop you when you are sick” into an amendment to Section X, subsection Y, subpart Z to the Social Security Act, with conforming amendments in the Public Health Services Act, etc. and on and on. OLC works with all members, regardless of party. The assignment of a lawyer to a particular issue is based on their specialty – i.e. there are specialists in the IRS Code, specialists in the Social Security Act, etc. (and “specialist” means they have probably actually drafted significant parts of those laws).
Here’s a , who heads up the health care team for the House’s OLC. He was writing the health care bill then, and he wrote the one that was just signed into law today (with help from other lawyers in House and Senate OLCs).
Reviewing the Draft
Once the staffer has a draft, he or she will probably vet it with trusted experts and organizations that have an interest in the issue. It is always true that those actually affected by the legislation will troubleshoot its potential positive and adverse effects better than one staffer. Sometimes those suggestions, especially by professional advocates (i.e. lobbyists), are offered in the form of legislative language or line edits to proposed language.
After the bill has been vetted and the Member agrees to introduce it, a printed copy is signed by the Member and delivered down to the “Hopper” on the House Floor (or similarly for the Senate). Usually that just means an intern hands it to the clerk minding the door to the Floor, and they get it to the Hopper — in a much less dramatic fashion Legally Blonde II would have you believe. It is then processed and given a number.
Big Bills and the Christmas Tree
These little bills frequently never come to a vote on their own, but they are important. Through the co-sponsorship process, and by building support for these small bills through constituent input and endorsements by organizations or businesses, supporters of these bills demonstrate to Leadership that the idea has merit and should be considered for inclusion in a larger package. Those larger packages are the bills that have nicknames and get all the attention – The Health Care Bill, The Climate Change Bill, The Stimulus Package. In fact, staffers often refer to the end-of-the year spending bill as a “Christmas Tree” with lots of “ornaments” in the form of these smaller bills with large contingencies of support attached to make the bill more attractive.
The chairmen and subcommittee chairmen of committees of jurisdiction lead the process of drafting the large bills. Usually for a large bill, the committee will dedicate days or weeks or months of hearings to gathering information about the topic, to hear different perspectives and to educate the members and staff. During these hearings, Members will raise concerns or express interest in certain policies, both to make their views public and to indicate to the chairman and staff what they would like to see in a bill. Before drafting begins, there will likely be many meetings among staff and Members to discuss priorities, and attempt to reach consensus on an approach, within the committee, or at least within the majority members of the committee.
The staff then works on a format based on the input from committee members, directed by the Chairman. Often this will include “picking up” smaller bills that have been introduced by committee members and including them in the legislation. OLC then turns this format into legislative language and the vetting process goes forward. The draft language will likely go through many iterations, with many edits. Edits to the document are done by OLC, usually only at the direction of the committee staffer that is in charge of that particular section. When the bill is ready, it is treated just like the smaller bills, it is printed, signed, delivered to the Hopper, and given a number.
So here’s a summary of what Marci wrote: If you want to know who actually puts pen to paper, it’s nonpartisan staff lawyers who work for Congress who know the exiting law they are affecting inside out. They do that under the direction of office staff for Members of Congress and congressional committees, who vet the bill with outside experts and advocates. Sometimes those advocates (i.e. lobbyists) propose changes in the form of legislative language. But did they write the bill? Probably not.
As the northeast gets blasted with snow — here in Philadelphia we’re on our third storm in two weeks — I’ve got a few new updates for GovTrack.
- Last month launched and it’s now getting integrated with GovTrack. The new site has reporting on what congressional committees are meeting about and other legislative analysis. If you are tracking legislation with GovTrack, when there’s a relevant GovTrack Insider article you’ll see an event in your feed. Plus, the Insider headlines are now featured on GovTrack’s homepage.
- The and especially pages have new “Popular Bills” lists. You can now see what bills people are searching for most and what search terms they are using. This way, if you’re not sure what bill you’re looking for you can get some short descriptions. No one has tried this before for bills, so we’ll have to see how it works out and tweak it in the future.
- If you’re tracking committee meetings, they now show up dated by when the meeting was posted (well, found by GovTrack) rather than with the date of the meeting. The reason we made this change is that if you really are tracking these meetings, you don’t want to keep seeing the same events a month in the future until they occur. We think you want to see them as soon as they’re posted, and then they’ll fade away as newer things come up. If also means if you get these events by email, you won’t get multiple emails for the same meetings over and over again. If you still want a calendar-oriented format, you can now get an actual calendar from the page. And the still links to an iCal feed which you can use in calendaring applications (including Google Calendar).
And that’s it for now.
This week we had a technical glitch that caused every bill to show up with no cosponsors. This should now be corrected.
Everything should be back to normal now. Thanks for your patience.
Instead of just giving a number, let me break down the state of every bill proposed in Congress in 2009. As you may know, Congress operates on two-year cycles and bills don’t carry oveer from cycle to cycle. 2009 was the first year in the “111th Congress” cycle.
Enacted Laws: 123 bills have been enacted in this cycle by being passed by both houses of Congress and then being signed by the president. (This includes some joint resolutions but I’m just calling them bills on this count.)
Passed Both Chambers: 21 bills have passed both chambers but haven’t become law. There are a few reasons this can happen. In some cases, the House and Senate have passed different versions of the same bill and need to confer to produce a single final bill. In a handful of over cases, the House and Senate adjourned shortly after passing the bill, and so they have not gotten around to formally sending the bill to the President. Finally, we have the bill, , which President Obama pocket-vetoed. It was his first veto, but it was also .
Passed One Chamber: 318 bills have passed either the House or Senate but not the other, and so are waiting for the second house of Congress to pick it up.
Failed: One legislative item, , failed on its vote on passage in its originating chamber. This is relatively unusual because leadership avoids votes on bills they believe will not pass.
Failed Suspension Vote: 4 bills were voted on and failed in the House under what’s called “suspension of the rules” which is a technical term for when they try to move noncontroversial legislation forward under a two-thirds vote. Bills that fail this way can be tried again under a simple majority vote later on.
Introduced: 6,585 bills have been introduced and are awaiting a committee recommendation before being considered by the House or Senate as a whole.