Author archive.

August 15, 2013

Can committees amend bills on their own?

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Questions.

GovTrack user Jonathan asks:

At what point are amendments made in subcommittees considered to be adopted?  Some of the language I’ve found implies that subcommittees have the authority to amend bills without needing the approval of the whole House or Senate. So, are amendments made in subcommittee considered adopted or are they pending until approved by the parent committee, or perhaps pending until considered on the floor?

Basically you have to think of it in stages. An amendment may be adopted by a subcommittee, but it’s basically not final until the full committee writes up their report and sends the bill and the report to the floor. Then, again, it’s essentially not final because the chamber as a whole will then propose amendments and vote on the bill. (And then it goes to the other chamber, and so on.)

So committees get the first whack at a bill. Whatever they do to the bill is what goes to the House or Senate floor. After that point, the committee has no part of the process. They send their version of the bill to the floor and that’s what the chamber as a whole will consider.

There’s a procedural step called “recommitting” which means the chamber disagrees with the committee’s changes and wants the committee to fix it and then send the bill back to the floor. But that’s extremely rare.

There’s another type of committee, a conference committee, which is very different. It’s used to resolve differences between the chambers. These committees are (sometimes) formed after both chambers have passed a bill, but in nonidentical form. They’ll propose an amendment to get both chambers on the same page. Like normal committee action, the chambers as a whole have to approve that amendment, though by that point it’s usually a perfunctory step.

Thanks for your question, Jonathan!

August 12, 2013

Summer 2013 Updates

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

You asked for widgets, better accessibility, and improvements to email updates, and you got it. Here’s how we’ve improved GovTrack since the last update:

Major Updates

Our blog post and video Lawmakers Who Aren’t Making Law got national media coverage on The McLaughlin Group (at 22:20). Thanks to GovTrack’s director of communications Avi Eilam for spearheading that project.

Want to display the status of a bill on your website? Our bill widgets are back (example). You can find the link to the widget embed code on the right side of bill pages. GovTrack developer Gordon Hemsley knocked out this new feature just in the last few days.

Track bills by the section of the United States Code they amend. You can now get alerts whenever a new bill is introduced that would amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), or any other part of the US Code. Click the “Track Citations” button at the top of that page to get started.

GovTrack had not been very accessible to individuals with color blindness because we omitted underlines on links. If you noticed new underlining in many places, that’s to make sure more people can use the site.

When searching for bills, you can now put phrases “in quotes” to exclude bills that have both words in their title or text but not adjacent. And when searching for Members of Congress words like “senator” and “New York” won’t confuse our search anymore.

Bill pages now have a Comments tab, so you can leave comments for other users about what you think of legislation.

Other Improvements

“Your Lists” is now called “What I’m Tracking.” We simplified the track buttons on bill pages and elsewhere to make it much less confusing. And we added explanatory text about what tracking something will do in various places. Such as, when tracking particular bills: “You will get updates when this bill is scheduled for debate, has a major action such as a vote, or gets a new cosponsor, when a committee meeting is scheduled, when bill text becomes available or when we write a bill summary, plus similar events for related bills.”

When you get an alert for a newly introduced bill, we’ll now include what committees it has been referred to and whether any Members of Congress you are tracking are on any of those committees.

The overall layout of GovTrack pages has been tweaked a bit. We’re allocating a bit more space to advertisements. And the breadcrumb links are smaller.

When you paste a link to GovTrack into Twitter, Twitter should now give you a small preview of the page.

Our bill prognosis analysis is revised a bit. Instead of 16 separate models we now use 8, and in training the dependent variable is now continuous to measure how much of a bill’s text was enacted in any bill, rather than only checking for whether each bill individually was enacted per se.

The bills overview page has been rearranged a bit.

Some Mistakes

Early in the summer we went through a long process of trying to understand the 5+ ways that the House numbers amendments. There was some confusion. We think we finally understand it and are linking votes to the correct amendment descriptions now.

From July 12 to July 18 committee meetings feeds were broken because of invalid data coming from the House.

Some bills have multiple titles for portions of the bill but no short title for the whole bill. Previously we would use one of the short titles for a portion, but now instead we show a long title.

Our bill search got confused if in a bill’s printed text a word appeared hyphenated (split across two lines). That would make our system not see the word at all. We’re now indexing bills a different way so all words that appear in the bill’s text can be searched for.

Logging into GovTrack using your Twitter account wasn’t working from June 11 to June 28.

When updating your password, there was no confirmation that it worked. That’s been fixed.

For Developers

We’re now mirroring the ‘congress’ and ‘congress-legislators’ github projects in our data directory.

In our API, we’ve normalized the date format for the different API endpoints. You can now pass any ISO-style date to any of the endpoints.

Also in the API we’ve limited the number of returned rows per request to 600 rows at a time to ensure API queries don’t affect overall system performance. If you need more than that, you should probably use the bulk data.

July 1, 2013

Civic data to inspire: the Girl emPower iPad app

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

We’re proud to see GovTrack’s database put to use to by others to empower individuals. In this guest post, Andrew Cavanagh describes the iPad app he created with Laura Phelps called Girl emPower, which you can find on the Apple app store here. Thanks to Andrew and Laura for letting us share their story.

Civic data, such as the information gathered by GovTrack, becomes more and more powerful as an engagement tool as we get smarter at presenting the data in effective ways. The recently released Girl emPower iPad app does just that — it takes a complicated problem and uses data about members of Congress using the GovTrack API.

Women are starkly underrepresented in political office and many leadership positions, and research suggests that this is partly because girls and young women lack role models in these fields. The Girl emPower iPad app offers a solution to this problem by connecting girls with the women who have already paved the way.

The Girl emPower app was enthusiastically received by leaders in the women’s movement who gathered at the White House’s conference for the Equal Futures Challenge in late April. It was also featured by the White House for what it does to clearly connect young women with their leaders and engage them through the mediums they already use — Twitter, YouTube and tablet technology. The app lets girls use interactive maps to explore their congressional districts, learn about their representatives and follow the latest updates from women leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate.

Remarkably, many of the female leaders have grown comfortable with these mediums for information dissemination too, making them a common ground for the women leaders trying to reach the constituents and the young girls who want to learn how to be just like them.

While it’s important that the women who work on solving inequality in leadership positions connect with the app, it’s most important to the developers that the girls actually want to use it as a tool. That’s why the developers were thrilled to learn that Girl emPower is going to be used in classrooms and included in summer camp and conference materials.

Girl emPower was selected from a myriad of submissions in the White House Equal Futures App Challenge by distinguished judges including: Jack Dorsey, creator and co-founder of Twitter and founder ad CEO of Square; Jocelyn Goldfein, director of engineering at Facebook; Andrew Shue, co-founder of and co-founder of; Geena Davis, Academy Award-Winning Actor; Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts; Judy Vredenburgh, president and CEO of Girls Inc.; Tiffany Dufu, president of the White House Project; Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis; Senator Lisa Murkowski; Rep. Barbara Ballard; and Mayor Elizabeth Kautz.

President Obama said the White House Equal Futures App challenge was about creating apps that inspire young women to become leaders. “I want our daughters to imagine themselves as the next generation of leaders in our schools, our businesses, our communities, and in our government as well,” the president said. “As mayors, as governors, as senators and as presidents of the United States.”

To download the free iPad app from the Apple app store, click here:

The Girl emPower project would not have been possible without the great support of the GovTrack API, which powerfully organizes relevant information about America’s leaders. For questions, contact

May 27, 2013

Spring 2013 Updates

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Since the last update, here’s what we’ve been working on. We fixed some major features that hadn’t been working since the start of the 113th Congress in January:

  • Committee meetings are now being tracked again. You can add a committee meeting tracker to your feeds and get email updates from the start page. If you were tracking committee meetings previously, we’re very sorry that you hadn’t been getting any updates about meetings. We’re now tracking House meetings even better than ever thanks to the House’s hugely improved transparency practices.
  • Summaries from Congress’s Congressional Research Service were also missing. After restoring this, you’ll find 3,071 more bill summaries than we had before.
  • Around the same time our loading of state bill information also stopped working. We recently restored it and you can get back to tracking bills in all 50 states (+DC) now.

We also corrected a major mistake:

  • On May 7 we added some amendment details in votes on amendments. Unfortunately, we associated some House votes with the wrong amendment due to the confusing way in which the House publishes vote data. After consulting with staff for the House Clerk we resolved the issue on May 25.

You’ll also find some great new features:

  • Votes on amendments now include more information on the amendment, where available, including the amendment’s sponsor and a short description (as provided by Congress). You can see this on the votes page.
  • Every bill page now has a big “Share on Facebook” button. We hope you’ll use this to keep your network up to date about bills you care about.
  • We also expanded our coverage of bills from 1951-1972 and bill text from 1973-1992 using the U.S. Statutes at Large. We were previously missing some bills since adding this data set earlier in the year.

We’re also playing with two experimental ideas:

  • On some bill pages you’ll see a new Citations tab (example: H.R. 933). This tab lists the citations the bill makes to existing law, and we provide hyperlinks to where you can read that law if you want to try to put the bill in context. Citations to slip laws (i.e. “Public Law ___”) take you to a bill page on GovTrack (for laws enacted since 1951). Citations to the United States Code are grouped by title/part/chapter of the Code and link out to the Cornell Legal Information Institute.
  • We also began offering you a deal: For $5 we’ll hide the advertisements on GovTrack (forever). If you find the ads annoying, or are conscious of your web privacy, you might find it worthwhile.

And some minor updates:

  • We removed the ideology charts from pages for Members of Congress who have not yet sponsored many bills, since the results of the analysis were not very accurate.
  • On the Your Lists page, the items in your lists are now links back to the pages where you found the tracker in the first place.
  • Also on the Your Lists page, creating a new list had a bug. That bug is now fixed.
  • And other minor changes.

For developers:

  • Our API now includes committees and committee membership.
  • The API documentation has been improved a bit.
  • We re-wrote our developer page to provide a better overview of where to find the different ways to access GovTrack’s data.
And don’t forget that GovTrack has two new staff members this year. Here’s what they’re up to:
  • GovTrack staffer Gordon Hemsley is now working on adding bills from 1799-1873 into GovTrack. I can’t wait to see what those were about!
  • Our communications staffer Avi Eilam has been manning our Twitter feed. Follow us to get micro-summaries of select bills as they are introduced!

And I’m going on vacation in June. Let’s hope there are no transparency crises while I’m away!

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..