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May 24, 2013

The U.S. House holds transparency conference, says access to law must be free

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Uncategorized.

This year the U.S. House has continued on its path toward greater transparency, and this week in particular two developments are worth noting: The House’s committee on House Administration held its second annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference, and they rebuked a report that suggested it was OK for the government to charge the public for access to the law.

At the conference on Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol, staff in the office of the House Clerk, the Library of Congress, and the Government Printing Office, and other offices, updated attendees on the status of ongoing transparency projects, from the new Docs.House.Gov to the new Beta.Congress.Gov. We learned that the House is developing new software to record committee votes — currently notoriously difficult to find — so that these voting records can be published in a consistent, standard, and machine-readable format on Docs.House.Gov.

The House Administration committee invited members of the public to speak in the afternoon. I closed out the conference with a presentation on an Open Government Data Maturity Model. (There was no need for me to present GovTrack — everyone at the conference already knows GovTrack well!)

Also on Wednesday the House Administration Committee published a press release rebuking a recommendation from a report that they commissioned that suggested it was OK to charge the public for access to the law. The committee wrote:

Today, House Administration Chairman … issued the following statement … rejecting a recent recommendation by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to charge the public for access to GPO’s congressional documents: … Charging the public to access important legislative documents offered online by GPO, like the Congressional Record and the U.S. Code, would be a direct assault on our ability to engage Americans in a process that is of great consequence to their livelihoods.

When the congressionally-funded report was first published I was appalled that it suggested pay-for-access was OK, and I am relieved that the House Administration Committee feels the same way.

Daniel Schuman at the Sunlight Foundation covered this in more detail, and James Jacobs for FreeGovInfo covered this originally here and here.

There have been some other great developments in the House earlier this year, including an earlier meeting on transparency, and new digitization projects for historical legal documents. And this continues a line of improvements to transparency during the 112th Congress (2011-2012), which I wrote about here.

March 31, 2013

Winter 2013 Updates 2

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.
Here’s a list of some of the recent improvements to GovTrack.
  • We started writing original summaries of select bills. Read them all here.
  • Vice presidents now have pages on GovTrack. Remember that they cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, like in this one. Tie-breaking votes now indicate which vice president was the one who cast the vote.
  • You can now search bills by their slip law number, which looks like P.L. 111-64. And enacted bills now show their slip law number, such as on this page.
  • Email updates are now on a new schedule: daily weekday updates are now going out around 8am ET (was previously 8pm), and weekly updates are now going out Saturday around 2pm ET (was previously Sundays at 8pm).
  • House committee assignments are finally now listed on GovTrack (thanks to The New York Times for contributing the information).

Here are some other less-visible changes we made:

  • We replaced the ‘dot diagram’ on vote pages with a seating chart diagram, like on this vote page. The seating chart diagram arranges Members of Congress according to our ideology score, and that can reveal interesting patterns about how Members of Congress are voting.
  • In tracked events for bills, we’re no longer including a separate “referred to committee” event if the referral occurs on the same day as the bill’s introduction.
  • We added some explanatory text when a bill is “providing for the consideration” of another bill and for so-called “original” bills and resolutions. The text appears on bill and vote pages.
  • Our bill prognosis now includes committee assignments as factors, and we dropped factors that don’t meet new significance testing.
  • On district map pages, there is now a link to download a KML file of the map (inside the embed link).
  • We made some fixes for how the site appears on mobile devices.
For developers:
Thanks to GovTrack staffers Gordon and Avi for their work on adding vice presidents and writing summaries!
February 9, 2013

Winter 2013 Updates 1

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News, Uncategorized.

We’ve added historical information on bills from 1951-1978 and made some other improvements to the site recently. Here are the details:

  • Using the Statutes at Large, the compilation of laws enacted by Congress, we’ve added enacted bills from 1951-1972 into GovTrack. For example, here’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 (H.R. 7151 in the 88th Congress). You can search and browse them on the advanced search page.
  • We also added bills and resolutions from the 93-95th Congresses (1973-1978). Previously we only went back to the 96th Congress (1979-1980).
  • To explain the new data, we added a new coverage table to the About page.
  • When you share a bill or vote page on Facebook, it’ll now include a thumbnail image.
  • We improved the account settings page. That’s the page when you click your email address at the top of the page, if you’re logged in.
  • On pages for Members of Congress, there’s now a link to their page on the C-SPAN website, where you can see videos of their floor speeches. Try with Sen. Mary Landrieu. (Thanks to The New York Times for contributing the data.)
  • Fixed bill search so you can search by bill number without having to type periods and spaces, like “hr1234.”
  • You can now also track the changes we make to GovTrack on github.
January 13, 2013

Our Analysis Methodology: Technical Details

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

We’ve added a new Analysis Methodology page. This page provides details on our ideology, leadership, and prognosis analyses so that they can be understood better by our users and so they can be replicated by researchers in other domains.

Read it all..

January 4, 2013

Welcome to the 113th Congress

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Yesterday the 113th Congress was sworn in and began filing bills. Here’s how that affects GovTrack and other updates to the site this week.

Read it all..

December 7, 2012

Bill prognosis gets a few improvements

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Back in April we introduced “bill prognosis” (original post), a statistical analysis of how likely bills are to be enacted. Today we’re making a few improvements. Read on for more about it.

Read it all..

November 25, 2012

Site Updates – Fall 2012

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

From a new start page to improved maps, here’s what we’ve been working on this fall:

There is a new Start page to find something to track and get email updates for, and you can now get email updates on full text keyword searches. So if you want to track something that is not one of the subject terms listed on the bills page, you can now make your own search for it.

The Members of Congress overview page now has some handy information on the number of Members of Congress by party.

The missed vote %‘s for Members of Congress, such as on the page for Senator Coats, are now computed a little differently:

  • A bug introduced in June caused some votes toward the end of 1976 to be skipped. That’s now corrected.
  • For Members of Congress who served non-continuously in Congress (e.g. lost an election but won a later election) we were not counting their votes from their earlier terms. We now do.
  • We now compute separate medians for the House and Senate.
  • Because of #3, for Members of Congress that have served in both the House and the Senate, we now compute their missed vote % for their lifetime service only in the chamber they are currently serving in.

We avoid changing numbers just for change’s sake. These changes were a part of our ongoing cleaning-house. The software we originally wrote to compute missed vote %’s is now about 8 years old, and that was holding us back from making other improvements. So we finally bit the bullet and replaced it with something new.

And some other minor changes:

  • Members of Congress with accents in their name, such as Rep. Nydia Velázquez,  now show up in search results when you omit the accent, such as with a search for “Velazquez”.
  • Pages for Members of Congress now properly include “Jr.” and other name suffixes, such as on the page for recently resigned Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr..
  • On pages for votes, we now always display the options at the top in the same order: Aye/Yea, No/Nay, Present, Not Voting.
  • The advanced bill search page now has a filter for the party of the sponsor. You can choose the party or select whether it is the majority or minority party, which is helpful when doing a multiple-Congress search since the majority/minority party changes over time.

We’ve also been making improvements to our district maps in preparation for the new districts for the new Members of Congress taking office in January. That lead to the creation of a new API for developers for maps and GIS queries.

And finally, we’ve also been advising Congress on how to make more legislative data available, and we are working on a collaborative project to make the legislative data we have more comprehensive and reliable.

October 16, 2012

The math behind some of our stats

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Analysis, Site News.

If you’re interested in the math behind some of our statistics — the ideology/leadership charts and the bill prognosis scores — you might find interesting a talk I gave last week. I had the opportunity to kick off the application development track at the Law Via the Internet (LVI) 2012 conference at the Cornell Law School with my presentation “Observing the Unobservables in the United States Congress” [slides | video].

The political reality we know today is entirely manufactured. Can Big Data help us cut through the spin to see what is really going on? Yes it can. This talk will present several statistical techniques used on GovTrack.us to quantify what is really going on in the U.S. Congress, including applying Google’s PageRank algorithm to Members of Congress, principle components analysis on bill sponsorship, and logistic regression on the success of bills.

The slides have Python code samples for computing the statistics.

I previously blogged about leadership/ideology and bill prognosis.

August 28, 2012

Summer 2012 Updates #2: August Edition

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.
We’ve added a few great new search features to GovTrack, as well as other improvements. Check them out:
  • Find Similar Bills: There are often multiple bills introduced on a topic and major changes to bills are sometimes introduced as entirely new bills. These related bills can be hard to find, especially if you want to look across legislative sessions. But now you can find a “similar bills” link on every bill page which will let you browse through other bills by how closely the text of the bills are similar. For instance, if you go to S. 657: National Blue Alert Act of 2011 and click the similar bills link you’ll learn that there is also a bill to create a Silver Alert.
  • Search by Cosponsor/Committee: The advanced bill search now has fields to filter by cosponsor and committee assignment.
  • We added links to OpenSecrets, VoteSmart, and Twitter on pages for Members of Congress so you can find more information about them.
  • We analyzed Rep. Paul Ryan‘s legislative record in two posts: Ryan’s Record: By The Numbers and The VP Candidates Agreed on 52 Substantive Bills.
  • And we fixed a number of bugs on the site. For instance, sponsors and cosponsors on bills from past years were shown with their current title (i.e. Rep. from District X) but now are shown with the title they had at the time they sponsored the bill. Our sponsorship statistical analyses now show up for historical Members of Congress, such as President Obama and Vice President Biden.
UPDATE – Sept 2, 2012 – Last week GovTrack was honored to be named a Model of Excellence in innovation around content and data by DataContent and the InfoCommerce Group. Thanks guys! They wrote:
[GovTrack] addresses an increasingly important and complex challenge: finding, understanding, and tracking government legislation. GovTrak is a well-executed example of how the combination of data, tools, and analytics can deliver power to those who are seeking the truth.
August 15, 2012

The VP candidates agreed on 52 substantive bills

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Analysis.

Partisan politics drives us to look at differences. But during the time Rep. Paul Ryan served along side then-Sen. Joe Biden from 1999 to 2008, our VP candidates voted the same way on 52 substantive bills.

Here are the 52 bills which the two candidates both supported:

Major new laws:

Finance, trade, and related laws:

Education, energy laws:
Foreign policy laws:

National security laws:

Bills that did not become law (at least not under these bill numbers):

(There were no substantive bills that the candidates both opposed. That’s because it’s unlikely a bill will get a vote in both chambers of Congress unless there is strong support for the bill. That’s the same reason why most of these bills did become law, and why most had bipartisan support.)

There are at least 111 bills in all in which Ryan and Biden voted the same way when you include appropriations/authorizations bills. For the full list, see this spreadsheet on Google Docs. There are, of course, many more bills on which they voted differently, and many more bills that did not come up for a vote in both chambers that they probably would have disagreed on had they had the chance.

For more on Ryan’s record, see my previous post: