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

March 5, 2013

Update: Adding Bill Summaries

By aviad. Categorized in Site News.

Last month we began adding original summaries of select legislation introduced in this Congress.

Civic engagement in the legislative process requires not only that the public have access to legislation proposed in Congress, but also that they be able to understand it. However, bills can be extremely long and often consist primarily of cross-references to other paragraphs and sections, as well as current law. This means that you may need to open multiple documents to understand a single bill. Moreover, the purpose of many bills is not clearly spelled out, and historical or legislative background is only occasionally provided.

Thus, the unfortunate reality is that even Members of Congress and their staff sometimes don’t fully know what a bill contains. Witness the confusion surrounding the lengthy and complicated health care bill in 2009. And lawmakers are aware of this problem: Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) recently proposed a bill that would require every piece of congressional legislation to be written in a way that allows members to understand what it does.

Here at GovTrack we’ve gotten a fair amount of complaints about wordy, incomprehensible legislative language. So we’ve started doing our own research on certain bills, in an effort to provide simple and straightforward explanations of their content and purpose. These are bills that have gotten a lot of coverage in the press and social media, have many of our users tracking them, or have piqued our interest. Oftentimes, they have all three features.

Here’s a list of the bills we’ve summarized so far, ordered by the number of users tracking them:

  1. H.J.Res. 15: A bill to repeal presidential term limits
  2. S. 150, H.R. 437: Assault Weapons Ban of 2013
  3. H.R. 138, S. 33: Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act
  4. H.R. 142, S. 35: Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act of 2013
  5. H.R. 21: NRA Members’ Gun Safety Act of 2013
  6. H.R. 141: Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2013
  7. H.R. 193: Seed Availability and Competition Act of 2013
  8. S. 22: Gun Show Background Check Act of 2013
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 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:

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.