The GovTrack blog includes site news and occasional analysis of U.S. legislation.

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:

August 14, 2012

Ryan’s Record: By the Numbers

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Analysis.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s presumptive Vice Presidential nominee, took office 13 years ago. We can learn a lot from his legislative record as the congressman from Wisconsin’s 1st district.

Budget, taxes, and Medicare

During his tenure in Congress Ryan sponsored 75 bills, mostly related to the budget, taxes, and our government-run health care programs. Although he is known today for wanting to privatize Medicare, many of his bills attempt to reform Congress’s budgeting process in smaller pieces. His bill H.R. 5259 in 2002 would have changed budgeting to occur every two years rather than every year, in an attempt to make Congress’s time spent on budgeting more efficient.

The two bills he wrote that have become law modified excise taxes on arrows and named a post office. He’s currently the chair of the House Committee on the Budget. Budgeting hasn’t been going well. Last year the government almost defaulted on its debts because no budget had been passed! (The standoff between the two parties goes well beyond Ryan’s control, though.)

Ideology & Leadership

Our unique analysis of ideology and leadership in Congress puts Ryan right in the middle of the Republican House members:

Ideology is based on a statistical analysis that puts congressmen with similar patterns of co-sponsorship of bills closer together. Ryan co-sponsors bills that the middle of his party tends to co-sponsor. He’s neither extreme nor a centrist.

In this chart, congressional leaders are those representatives who tend to get a lot of cosponsors without necessarily cosponsoring other bills in return. Ryan is right about in the middle. But he is a little below the average leadership score of the 44 Republican representatives serving as long as Ryan.

Leadership is based on an analysis that’s similar to how Google decides which web pages to show first in search results. (More analysis details.)

Crossing party lines?

From Ryan’s position along the ideology axis of the chart above, you’d guess that he crosses party lines about an average number of times for House Republicans.

In a Washington Post story today that cites statistics from GovTrack, one former staffer said Ryan was all but compromising:

[T]hose who have watched Ryan’s recent career . . . say finding common ground has not seemed to be Ryan’s interest. “No, goodness, gracious.” said Steve Bell, a longtime Republican staffer on the Hill, who now works at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

But the statistics tell another story.

Of the 975 bills Ryan cosponsored since coming to DC, 22% were introduced by Democrats. That’s right in the middle. The freshmen members of the Republican caucus this Congress — many of them from the Tea Party — tended to cosponsor Democrats’ bills only 11% of the time. The Republicans except the freshmen did so 25% of the time. Overall, Ryan is at the 58th percentile, so a little more cross-partisan than most Republican congressmen.

Similar conclusions come from looking at the number of cosponsors of Ryan’s bills that were Democrats. Of the 75 bills he sponsored since he took office, 26% of his cosponsors were Democrats. Republican freshmen got 19%, Republicans except freshmen got 29%. Compared to the whole party, Ryan is at the 53rd percentile — he’s right in the middle.

July 29, 2012

Site Updates – Summer 2012 #1

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Busy as always, we’ve got some more new things on GovTrack this month:

  • Congressional District Maps now include redistricting maps for the upcoming elections. Except for Rhode Island — we’re still working on locating the new districts there. You can switch back and forth between your current district and the district you’ll be voting in this November.
  • The bills page has a new Statistics Tab where you can compare the number of bills enacted in each Congressional session since 1979 and see when during a session bills tend to be introduced and enacted.
  • The site now works better on mobile devices with small screen, and we’ll keep improving that.
  • Bill text comparisons are now available for comparisons between versions of a single bill and between selected different but related bills.
  • The font size has been increased throughout the site in response to feedback we got early on when the new site design went live in March.
  • The search pages have been fixed to work on Internet Explorer, they are faster, and got some other usability tweaks.
July 19, 2012

Data license changes, take two

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

Last post I wrote that I’d be changing the data licensing terms on GovTrack. I sincerely asked for feedback, and I got it. Gunnar, for instance, rightly pointed out that this isn’t everyone’s fight. He also noted that my dry sense of humor wasn’t really working.

The change I planned would have created substantial burdens for re-users of GovTrack’s data and yet would have had little impact, except possibly to annoy end-users. So I’m going to make a different change. This is a lot simpler:

You may not disparage services for being nonpartisan.

This will go into the terms of service to access the regularly updated raw data and API starting tomorrow. (It does not affect regular users of GovTrack or of any of the users of the tools that use GovTrack data.)

I don’t know of any current licensees that were a part of the boycott that started all of this, but I don’t know everyone who uses GovTrack’s data. If your organization can’t handle the new term, then I’m not above saying you can get your data elsewhere.

That said, the source code for the scripts that gather the data remain open source under the GNU AGPL license (see this github project for v2). And I do create special license agreements with other organizations as necessary. So there are at least two routes around this.

All along I suspected I wasn’t going to go ahead with the original changes that I announced. Like I said originally, it was ridiculous. I was trying to make a point, and I did.

***

This all began because some random guys said some other company should be boycotted for being nonpartisan. It really had nothing to do with me. But as I explained to techPresident I was appalled that:

“This is the first time that someone’s called what our community does ‘evil,’” Tauberer said in an e-mail. “I don’t take that lightly. PCCC’s Rosenbaum had better stand behind that if he is going to be so brash. Is he going to take the links to GovTrack off of the PCCC web site? Because right now those links support the right’s ability to get the same information.”

I think the open gov community is used to me curmudgeonly complaining about various things. Sometimes I try to be polite. But, honestly, I’ve gotten tired of being mostly complacent. In June I called out Rep. Crenshaw for trying to slow down legislative transparency and got almost 1,500 letters sent to Congress about it. This month I’m calling out this ridiculous boycott. Yeah, this might be the start of a new pattern.

A colleague pointed out to me over the weekend that the open source movement has a long history of using licenses to promote ideological positions. The GNU GPL license — the ‘viral’ license that is part of the backbone of the open source world — says you can use my software if you believe in the same sort of openness that I do. The GPL also prevents licensees from exercising software patent rights — which is in many ways a political statement. One of the earliest leaders of the free software movement believes it is a moral imperative for computing technology to be free (free as in freedom). Over at Creative Commons, licenses make a distinction between commercial and non-commercial use, which is something that to a for-profit guy like me thinks is pretty arbitrary.

So I’m not the first to think that giving stuff away can come with substantive terms and still be open. Though in my case, the license is a terms of service, not a copyright license, so the comparison with open source only goes so far.

July 12, 2012

Data license terms to change in response to Netroots conference boycott of nonpartisan tool NationBuilder

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

I sent the following message out to the GovTrack data developers mail list. It affects anyone who uses GovTrack’s bulk raw data downloads and API.

Dear data re-users,

This is advanced notice that on July 20 I’ll be revising the terms of GovTrack’s generic license agreement by adding the following paragraph:

* During the time in which your organization is reusing GovTrack’s database, your website must block visitors referred by the websites of sponsors of the Netroots Nation conference. If you make the data available in bulk to others, your license agreement must carry over the same terms.

In techPresident today, Netroots Nation’s executive director Raven Brooks encouraged progressive advocacy groups to boycott NationBuilder, a non-partisan technology platform that helps campaigns build their websites, because NationBuilder sells services to right-leaning organizations. There’s a complicated history here that’s touched on in the techPresident article (http://techpresident.com/news/22556/nationbuilders-mammoth-deal-state-level-republican-committee-sparks-calls-boycott), but Brooks’s point seems to boil down to a belief that there can be no nonpartisan political tools.

GovTrack, and most tools that reuse its database, is a nonpartisan tool that has played an important role in political activism over the last several years on both sides of the political aisle. It is astonishing to me that anyone would think that technology infrastructure should choose sides. Especially since it appears that the sponsors of past Netroots Nations conferences have been users of nonpartisan political technology platforms like GovTrack. If they are going to boycott tools like GovTrack, they certainly won’t notice the change to GovTrack’s license terms.

Your feedback on these changes is welcome, especially if the feedback is in the style of satire. But this isn’t a joke. Ridiculous boycotts of technology startups require ridiculous responses.

June 24, 2012

Site Updates: Spring 2012

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

A lot’s been happening here at GovTrack over the last few months. Here’s a quick run-down of the most recent changes:

  • If you use GovTrack to build lists of items to track, the Your Lists page has gotten a much needed visual refresh. It also now provides RSS feed links for each of your lists (which we had in the old GovTrack but hadn’t yet brought over). Finally, note that Your Lists has now been tucked inside a new Track menu at the top of the page.
  • We’ve put up a new page called Other Tools in the new Track menu featuring other ways you can track Congress besides using GovTrack.
  • Bill pages have been slightly reorganized. They now highlight the major votes on bills so you can find the votes you are looking for faster. We’re also now starting to include links to news articles for bills.
  • The Washington Post used our legislative data in an analysis of stocks being traded by Members of Congress published today, showing that conflicts of interest are pervasive.
  • A lot of bugs have been fixed, e.g. voting absentee rates were missing for Barack Obama‘s time as a senator.
  • The ordering of bills in the advanced search results has been improved with our “special sauce” that brings bills you’re probably looking for to the top.
  • We’ve had a few great press mentions lately: check out the full list.
  • For developers, we have a new experimental API to complement our bulk data downloads. And since launching the API we added to it information on roll call votes. The developer documentation has been improved.

We recently announced:

And coming up:

  • You may notice that bill text comparisons are coming back. Our automatic red-lining feature is better than ever. I’ll write separately on this in a few weeks, since right now there are still some bugs to take care of.
June 19, 2012

Welcoming the 50 States to GovTrack

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Site News.

If tracking one Congress was great, then tracking 51 of them must be even better! This week GovTrack added legislative tracking for the 50 states. You can now find:

The new state legislative information is available here through a partnership with LegiNation, Inc. and LegiScan, Inc. Some data is additionally from Open States. Check out LegiNation’s BillTrack50 website for professional (i.e. paid) legislative tracking tools if you’re ready for a step up from GovTrack and need a 50-state-plus-federal solution.

State tracking is a beta feature of GovTrack. We’ll be improving it over time in response to feedback from users like you.

The full announcement is below:


New  Open Data Partnership Improves Government Transparency at State and Federal Levels

GovTrack and LegiNation trade legislative data and help citizens engage with government

DENVER and WASHINGTON –June 18, 2012 – In a significant step toward greater government transparency, two organizations focused on publishing government data have joined forces to present  major new comprehensive, user friendly, publicly accessible databases of state and federal bills.  LegiNation, creator of the BillTrack50 solution to track state bills will exchange information with open government technology company Civic Impulse, developer of the federal legislative monitoring tool GovTrack. The aim of the data exchange is to provide individuals, advocacy groups, businesses and legislative professionals with access to information to better engage with government.

Joshua Tauberer is president of Civic Impulse and the author of Open Government Data: The Book which frames the open government data movement as the application of Big Data to civics. Mr. Tauberer said the partnership with LegiNation creates an important source of government data and presents citizens with the opportunity for increased participation in and influence of government.

“Citizens are far more savvy about their government and more interested in participating in it than most people realize. Apathy is a myth. But what they need are better tools to participate effectively and efficiently,” Mr. Tauberer contends.

Federal and state bills can be accessed on the www.billtrack50.com and www.govtrack.us websites for free, and a professional version allowing for advanced tracking and sharing is available through BillTrack50. The sites present bill text, status, and summaries in a format easily located by Google-like word search or by using more exact information like legislator names or bill numbers. Tools to stay informed of legislative activity are also provided.

Karen Suhaka, president of LegiNationl said the combined data will present a more accurate picture of the political landscape across the country, making it is easier to identify state and federal policy trends.  The partners also hope to improve the ability to analyze how ideas spread in government.

“People who are frustrated with Congress must look at the possibility of successful engagement at the state level. Making this data available to the public and to cost-conscious legislative professionals encourages everyone, not just moneyed interests, to make their voice heard in government,” Ms. Suhaka said.  “Individuals really can engage at the state level and have an impact.”

About GovTrack.us

GovTrack.us is a tool by Civic Impulse, LLC to help the public research and track the activities in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, promoting and innovating government transparency and civic education through novel uses of technology. Launched in 2004 initially as a hobby, GovTrack.us was the first website worldwide whose primary goal was to provide free and comprehensive legislative tracking for everyday citizens and to embrace Web 2.0 and open data. GovTrack.us was a 2006 Webby Award nominee and has been covered in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and it is the data provider for many other websites displaying legislative information.

About LegiNation

LegiNation, Inc. was founded in 2011 with the goal of making state level legislation more readily available to the professionals who need it, and even more importantly to the public at large. LegiNation is building products and websites that will spark a renaissance in American politics, leveraging the Internet to create the dialog so desperately needed amongst our elected officials, legislative professionals, and everyday citizens.

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 14, 2012

Public comments versus writing your representative

By Josh Tauberer. Categorized in Questions.

Patricia from Minnesota wrote in with a question about public comments:

Something else I would absolutely LOVE to see, is a compilation of all legislation that is open for public comments. Almost invariably, I find out about legislation that I have an interest in just as the comment period is about to end or is already closed.

“Public comments” refers to the rule making process in the executive branch, which is different from legislation in Congress. When federal agencies like the FAA, the DOT, etc. want to create regulations, they must first go through a long process called rule making. Rule making involves a mandatory public comment period, and the agencies are required to take the comments into consideration. The end of the rule making process is usually a regulation, and it appears in the Federal Register and later the Code of Federal Regulations.

On GovTrack we only do legislation — that is, the bills proposed and enacted by the legislative branch of government (the Congress). So while we don’t get involved in regulations and public comments, you can write your representative and senators any time about any bill currently before Congress. To do so, look for the Speak Up At POPVOX button on every bill page (for live bills) — you’ll be taken to POPVOX.com, a company I co-founded in 2010 to help constituents write letters to Congress.