Archive for the ‘Site News’ category.

Posts about new GovTrack features, media coverage, and other site developments.

June 7, 2012

Rep. Crenshaw backs down, loses control over bulk data issue

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Legislation In The News, Site News.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covered this story online on June 8, and on the front page in print on June 9.

The government data that makes GovTrack go has been the center of what looks like a failed political power play over the last week. Rep. Crenshaw, whose appropriations subcommittee issued a draft report last week that nearly halted access to “bulk data downloads,” now “agree[s] to free legislative information” according to a statement written jointly with House leaders yesterday.

Throughout the week, the Sunlight Foundation, GovTrack, and others had been working with legislative staff and raising awareness among the public. More than 1,400 letters were written by citizens to their representative about this issue. (In fact, you can read those letters at POPVOX.) The data in question contains the status of all bills currently being considered by Congress and having proper access to it would make applications like GovTrack (among many others) more timely and more accurate.

The committee’s report for the legislative branch appropriations bill H.R. 5882 confused a fear of technology with a reason to withhold public files from the public. It said that technology doesn’t exist when it does, it suggested Congress find funding to “confirm or invalidate third party analyses of legislative data,” and it established a task force to investigate the issue that had no deadline and no incentive to ever make the legislative data files available to the public. (More on that in my previous post and in a post by Sunlight’s Daniel Schuman.)

If Crenshaw was attempting to slow down and bring legislative transparency under the purview of his subcommittee — the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch — he might have not realized he was crossing his party superiors, the House Republican Leadership, who have made significant advances in transparency over the last year and a half. Crenshaw has no history with any efforts related to government transparency, as far as I’m aware.

The task force originally proposed by the appropriations committee has now been preempted by a new task force called at the discretion of House Leadership to investigate how to make the data files available. Although the new task force still has no deadline and lacks public input (see Daniel’s post), we know that House Leaders — Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor — have made good on those sorts of promises recently.

It was a circuitous path to this point. After Sunlight raised concerns with the draft committee report published last Wednesday, the report was revised in its final version to not halt existing bulk data files. Unfortunately, the committee didn’t tell anyone about the change and so no one noticed the disappearance of 10 words until Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile on Tuesday Rep. Issa scrambled on proposing an amendment to the bill that would immediately direct the Library of Congress to make the files available — no task force required. (Recall that the original problem was in the committee report for the bill. The amendment, as a change to the bill itself, was a considerably stronger directive.) Issa has been a strong supporter of the use of data for government transparency. His DATA Act, if enacted, would enormously improve how federal dollars are spent in the executive branch by instituting government-wide data standards. Although Issa’s amendment to H.R. 5882 was ultimately mooted by the joint statement, which Issa was a part of, his initiative in fixing the problem that Crenshaw started should be remembered.

Rep. Honda has been supporting bulk data all along. A member of the appropriations subcommittee, he supported bulk data as early as 2009 and did so again earlier this year when the committee was first considering H.R. 5882. As a member of the minority party, Honda was out-gunned early on in this round and did as much as he could.

So where are we now? While we still don’t have the data we want, at least it is not being studied by a task force both unfriendly to the idea of legislative transparency and based on severe technological misunderstandings. Instead, we have a commitment from the House Republican leadership that they will look into it soon, and based on their past performance that should be taken seriously. The crisis has been averted. Congress won’t be taking a step backward. It remains to be seen if the result was a step forward.

Still, this is only one half of the picture. Even with the House on board, the Senate still remains completely uninterested in bulk data availability of legislative information. We won’t get those files until both the House and Senate concur that making these data files available is a good thing.

June 4, 2012

Rep. Crenshaw thinks American public can’t be trusted with overseeing Congress

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Legislation In The News, Site News, Uncategorized.

UPDATE: See how this issue resolved.

Rep. Ander Crenshaw (FL4) and the House subcommittee he chairs decided this week that the American public can’t be trusted with more thorough records about what Congress is doing.

/// Take Action: Write your rep to oppose Crenshaw’s report.
/// Start a Letter >

Read it all..

May 12, 2012

New: Legislation Coming Up

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

It used to be that us outsiders never exactly knew when a bill was going to come up for a vote. But thanks to recent developments in the House we can be more involved in the legislative process in the crucial days before a bill comes to a vote.

GovTrack’s new Docket page and Coming Up feed give you a heads-up about bills coming up in the House and Senate. We’re also tweeting the upcoming bills and posting them to our Facebook page as they are posted. For instance, we just tweeted that H.R. 4119: Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 and a handful of other bills were added on Friday to the House’s schedule for next week.

The House schedule is based on a new House website called docs.house.gov that came online this past January thanks to the work of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the Office of the Clerk, the Committee on House Administration, and the Speaker’s office. The Senate schedule is based on the Floor Schedule for the next day published on Senate.gov.

The new docs.house.gov website is a major milestone for legislative transparency. For the first time, House leadership is not only committing to a rough schedule a week in advance but is also publishing the schedule in a re-usable, machine-processable format that allows websites like GovTrack to include the information quickly and reliably. Which we’ve done.

We’ve been pushing Congress to share more information in technologically-enabled ways for the last five years. This new docs.house.gov website came out of a pledge from Cantor’s office about a year ago to make more legislative data available. It was a response to the concerns we raised along with a handful of other government transparency organizations. While there’s much more legislative data we want, docs.house.gov is itself a laudable milestone.

May 6, 2012

New: Faceted Bill Search

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

One of my own favorite new parts of GovTrack 2.0 is the advanced bill search, which you can find in Browse => Bills => Search & Track => Advanced Search.

The advanced search — or in technical jargon the “faceted” search — can be used to drill-down into all of the bills that are currently before the U.S. Congress or actually any bill introduced since 1973. Besides searching bill titles, you can narrow your search using a number of other filters. What’s really cool is that the filters change as you drill-down so that you can find the available choices quickly.

For instance, choose Rep. Eric Cantor as the sponsor and then the filter for bill current status will only show the statuses of Cantor’s 17 bills in the current Congress. Next to each status is the number of Cantor’s bills with that status: 3 signed by the president, 2 bills passed the House, 11 resolutions passed, 1 bill waiting on committee action. Cantor has gotten a lot of bills passed.

You can also use this to get a quick count of the number of bills enacted since the start of the current session of Congress (2011-2012). Start at the advanced search and then find the filter “Signed by the President.” Next to it, it currently reads 106 bills. That’s how many bills became law. The count is updated as fast as the other bill information on GovTrack — typically it’s one or two days behind. Congress’s parliamentary procedure is pretty complex, so if you hover your mouse over any of the status options you’ll get a little explanatory text for it.

The filters in advanced search are: when the bill was introduced, who sponsored it, its current status in the legislative process, its subject area, and the bill’s type (e.g. bill versus resolution). You can also sort the results by the bill’s most recent status change date, by its date of introduction, or by its relevancy to a title text search.

The same search interface appears in a few other places on GovTrack. Can you find them all?

April 8, 2012

Even Better Bill Prognosis: Now with Real Probabilities

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News, Uncategorized.

Bill prognosis has gotten an upgrade. A few weeks ago I wrote about a new addition to GovTrack, the bill prognosis, and because it proved to be useful I expanded on it to provide a more detailed and numerical assessment of the future of each bill. For an example, check out H.R. 4323, which we’re currently listing as having a 2% chance of being enacted.

If you missed the first post, here’s an overview: Only a small fraction of the bills and resolutions introduced will ever be voted on. How do you know which bills to pay attention to? We can’t predict the future, but we can highlight factors that favor a bill’s progress and use statistics from past years to assess the likelihood that a bill will be enacted.

In the first version of bill prognosis, we listed whether the bill’s sponsor is the chair of the committee considering the bill and whether any cosponsors of the bill are on the committee. Now, we use factors like these and more to compute an actual probability that the bill will be enacted (or for resolutions that they will be passed).

For H.R. 4323: Consumer Mortgage Choice Act, we are currently listing a 2% chance of the bill being enacted and we show that the factors used in the computation are:

  • 3-5 cosponsors serve on a committee to which the bill has been referred.
  • There is at least one cosponsor from the majority party and one cosponsor outside of the majority party.
  • The sponsor is a member of the majority party.

I unfortunately confused things a bit by running a separate experiment recently. We were listing a probability that each bill would be enacted and were asking whether you thought the number was too low or too high. That wasn’t based on the bill prognosis — I’ll write about where that number was coming from another time. But I saw that GovTrack users were finding it useful, and so I knew enhancing the bill prognosis with a rigorously computed probability would be a good idea.

For the data wonks out there, the new prognosis is based on a logistic regression model. The model predicts a bill’s success based on the following binary factors:

  • the title of the bill (such as if it is a bill to name a post office)
  • whether the sponsor is a member of the majority party (in the House or Senate as appropriate)
  • whether the sponsor is the chair, ranking member (most senior minority party member), or a majority-party member of a committee that the bill has been referred to
  • if any cosponsor is the chair or ranking member of a committee the bill has been referred to
  • if there are 3-5 cosponsors of the bill serving on a committee the bill has been referred to
  • if the bill has a cosponsor from both parties
  • if the bill’s sponsor is in the majority party and at least 1/3rd of the cosponsors are from the minority party
  • if the bill was a reintroduction of a bill from the previous Congress (same sponsor and title, ignoring any year found in the title) and, separately, if the previous bill had been reported by committee (suggested by Tom Lee and Daniel Schuman shortly after this post was first published)
  • if the bill’s sponsor or cosponsors have a high leadership score based on GovTrack’s analysis of bill sponsorship (based on a suggestion from Mackenzie Morgan shortly after this post was first published)
  • and if any of these factors are true of a companion (identical) bill introduced in the other house of Congress

Success is for bills if they are enacted and for resolutions if they successfully reach the end of their life cycle (simple resolutions passed, concurrent resolutions passed by both chambers, joint resolutions enacted). A separate model was constructed for each of the eight bill types (H.R., S., S.Res., etc.). Additional models were created for bills that were at least reported by committee, and the prognosis for such bills is based on those separate models. The models were trained on bills and resolutions from 2009-2010 (the previous session of Congress).

Here are some results of the model. Of Senate bills in 2009-2010, only 2.8% were enacted. The regression coefficients for the model for Senate bills are listed below, in order from most indicative of a successful bill to least indicative. Also listed with each is the percentage of bills with that attribute that were enacted, to compare against the 2.8%.

  • 2.7 — the bill’s title starts with “A bill to designate the” (usually naming a post office) (24% enacted)
  • 2.1 — a companion bill has a cosponsor that is the ranking member of a relevant committee (22% enacted)
  • 2.0 — a companion bill’s sponsor is the chair of a relevant committee (29% enacted)
  • 1.7 — the bill’s title starts with “A bill to authorize” (10% enacted)
  • 1.0 — a cosponsor is the ranking member of a relevant committee (13% enacted)
  • 0.94 — a cosponsor is the chair of a relevant committee (9.4% enacted)
  • 0.76 — there are cosponsors from both parties (5.2% enacted)
  • 0.63 — the sponsor is from the majority party and at least 1/3rd of the cosponsors are from the minority party (6.8% enacted)
  • 0.47 — the bill was a re-introduction of a bill that was reported by committee in the previous session of Congress (7.6% enacted)
  • 0.37 — the sponsor is the chair of a committee to which the bill was referred (7.7% enacted)
  • 0.27 — a companion bill has a cosponsor from the majority party and a cosponsor from the minority party (6.3% enacted)
  • 0.12 — a companion bill is a reintroduction of a bill that was reported by committee in a previous session of Congress (11% enacted)
  • 0.080 — a companion bill has 6 or more cosponsors on a relevant committee (4.9% enacted)
  • 0.013 — a cosponsor in the majority party has a high leadership score (7.4% enacted)
  • -0.032 — a companion bill’s sponsor is in the majority party (5.4% enacted)
  • -0.13 — a companion bill’s cosponsor is the chair of a relevant committee (8% enacted)
  • -0.14 — 3-5 cosponsors are members of a relevant committee (4.7% enacted)
  • -0.85 — the sponsor is in the minority party (1.2% enacted)
  • -1.5 — the bill was a re-introduction of a bill from the previous session of Congress that had no major action (<1% enacted)
  • -34 — the bill’s title starts with “A bill to extend the temporary suspension of duty” (0% enacted)

The regression coefficients are not easily interpretable on their own, except that higher numbers mean that they more importantly indicate they help a bill get enacted. The largest negative numbers indicate those bills pretty much never get enacted. Small negative numbers don’t necessarily mean that the factor hurts a bill’s chances

(Before using the regression model I tested that each factor taken independently was statistically significant, but in a way that in retrospect was not a particularly good way to do it. My intuition is that the regression model factors are probably all statistically significant anyway. Based on that initial test of significance I excluded some of these factors from some of the models. For instance, no factors were statistically significant for the model for Senate bills reported by committee, in part because the sample of 523 bills is so much smaller. No regression model is used in that case, and the overall probability of 21% for all such bills is used as the prognosis for all bills in this category. Note how much larger 21% is than the overall success rate for all Senate bills, 2.8%.)

UPDATES: After folks suggested new factors to consider, I re-created the models and the regression coefficients above were updated.

March 24, 2012

New on GovTrack: Bill Prognosis

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Only a small fraction of the bills and resolutions introduced will ever be voted on. How do you know which bills to pay attention to? Now on GovTrack you can find a bill’s prognosis.

We can’t predict the future, but we can highlight factors that favor a bill’s progress. Check out H.Con.Res. 112 for example. Below the bill status chart in the middle of the page you’ll now find Prognosis. We’ll list there whether the bill’s sponsor is the chair of the committee considering the bill and whether any cosponsors of the bill are on the committee. Committees are where bills come for their real judgement. If a committee chair introduces a bill that gets assigned to his own committee, that bill is likely to be important.

Having support from other members of the committee is helpful as well. On the page for S. 2170 we list three relevant factors: the chair of the committee that the bill has been referred to is a cosponsor of the bill, the sponsor of the bill is on that committee, and one other cosponsor is also on that committee.

If no favorable factors are present, the prognosis section is omitted.

March 19, 2012

We’ve made a few “tweaks” to GovTrack

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Welcome to the start of GovTrack 2.0! This past weekend I replaced the site with a completely new GovTrack that lays the groundwork for many more years of innovation in legislative tracking.

Let me get out of the way that there are some things missing from GovTrack 2.0 that were in the old site, and if you need them you can still find them for now at http://legacy.govtrack.us, which continues to run the old site. I apologize for discontinuing some features, such as information on amendments, but with the site’s tiny budget I’m just not able to keep everything running at once. Still, please email me at operations@govtrack.us about what you want to see on the new site: Feedback helps me decide what to do next.

Why all the changes? Websites are like cars. After eight years you spend more time and money on repairs than you’d care to admit. Things started to break. Email updates and bill text were on the fritz lately. The best way to move forward was to buy the new shiny car. I started working on the new site 14 months ago, hiring more help than I’ve ever brought on in the past. While GovTrack 2.0 is no where near finished, it got to the point this weekend where it was at least as good as what we had.

There is still a lot ahead, so you can expect the kinks to be worked out over the coming weeks and more major new features added in the coming months.

Right now I’m fixing up some problems with the new site, but I’ll be writing more here about the changes we made and the new things you can already find here.

Thanks for bearing with us during this transition. Again, your feedback is important for guiding what happens next, so keep it coming.

March 16, 2012

GovTrack users want better transparency from Congress

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

It is time for the Library of Congress to modernize the way they disseminate legislative information to the public, and GovTrack users are standing up to a call to push Congress to make this happen.

I asked my users here whether they would sign on to a letter to Congress asking for better legislative transparency. In the week from March 7-14, more than 8,000 individuals gave their name and address, and wrote 150 pages worth of comments about why GovTrack is important to them! This is an impressive showing. I will been using this outpouring of support as I lobby Congress for better legislative data, in concert with the Sunlight Foundation – UPDATE: and Washington Watch.

Here’s what some users wrote:

“As a citizen, it is my responsibility to ensure that I am involved in the process of government. GovTrack makes it possible for me to hear about and monitor legislation so that I may make my voice heard in the process.”

“Gov Track informs me of bills that have been introduced in the House and Senate and allows me to efficeintly track those bills. It helps greatly with my job as a Chief Compliance Manager for a credit union as well as in my life as an interested citizen.”

“GovTrack is a single concise source for tracking an assortment of legislation. This user-friendly system is far superior to the Thomas system and allows interaction between parties. The PopVox site is a great addition to GovTrack.”

“Its very important to be informed about what is actually happening in the US. As an overseas citizen, most of my knowledge of current events comes from news companies, all with separate political agendas. If I read the bills as they come out, i avoid bias.”

“TRANSPARENCY is mandatory…..enough said.”

Thanks to everyone who wrote such kind words about GovTrack — it is sincerely appreciated. And I’ll write more about how your comments were used.

What I’m asking Congress and the Library of Congress to do is to share their internal database of legislative information that powers their THOMAS website. That database would make GovTrack more accurate. And it would do the same for the dozens of other websites and apps that reuse the legislative database that we put together and share with others, and dozens of other websites and apps that reverse-engineer THOMAS directly themselves.

The Library of Congress’s current priority, with regard to legislative information, is to upgrade the THOMAS website. While the upgrade is long overdue (THOMAS was built in 1994), sharing their data is both far cheaper and will have a much wider impact than a website upgrade.

Since 2004, GovTrack.us has been one of the most popular websites among the public to research and track the legislation that Congress is considering. Over the last six months, GovTrack and its data partners have been used by 5–10 million individuals, which as far as I can tell is more than the number of people using THOMAS. I’m not saying that the Library of Congress should not be providing THOMAS, but helping websites like GovTrack help the public is today the most efficient and effective way for the Library to fulfill this part of its mission.

 “Bulk data” is today considered a core component of any government information dissemination program. In 2009, the Government Printing Office began offering bulk data for bill text, the Federal Register, and other publications, leading directly to new services that were created in the private sector to help the public. Under the direction of the Majority Leader, the House began publishing bulk data for bills to be considered in the week ahead. Executive branch agencies are all now under a directive to embrace data.

I’ve been beating this drum for a long time. In 2001, when I was just starting work on GovTrack, I asked the Library of Congress about it. Six years later, I was joined by the Sunlight Foundation in our Open House Project report, and in 2009 we got the House to enact a law to ask the Library of Congress to look into it. Yes, even an Act of Congress was not enough. So here we are today, going back to the congressional staff that oversee the Congress’s library asking them to revisit legislative data again. Stay tuned as we dig further into this in the next few weeks.

July 22, 2011

Check out the new colors

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

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!

December 26, 2010

Numerical methods for determining leadership and ideology in Congress

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Analysis, Site News.

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.

Read it all..