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The OpenCongress Voters' Toolbox

October 28, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The midterm elections will be held this Tuesday, Nov. 2nd. With all the partisan half-truths being thrown at voters from all sides these days, at OpenCongress we want to help you find some actual facts about your congressional races. On OpenCongress, you can learn about your current members of Congress, see all the candidates running in your district, and now -- watch the campaign ads running near you on our new AdTracker project. Take a moment to check out the links below, and please share this post to help more voters make their decision with the best factual information out there. We're a non-profit and non-partisan public resource, independent from Congress and any political party.

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Refresher Course: TARP

October 27, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The vote that best represents the general anger with Congress these days is passage of TARP, the taxpayer-backed bailout program that rescued the banks and car companies from bankruptcy, but did nothing to help the unemployed or foreclosed. Unfortunately, when asked, most people get the basic facts about TARP wrong. I'm not talking about the impacts of the policy or whether or not it was a good idea, just the basic, verifiable facts like who proposed it and who voted for it.

Given that this is still weighing on voters' minds, and that it's been more than two years since the actual vote, here's a quick refresher.

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We're now a week out from the midterm elections and the election ads are getting nasty. While there are some great tools for tracking election spending (like those from the Sunlight Foundation), we wanted the ability to actually watch these monstrosities and create a permanent archive to hold these groups and politicians accountable, so we created the AdTracker project on OpenCongress.

AdTracker is built on the OpenCongress wiki and complements RaceTracker, which logged the candidates for each seat. It uses the distributed power of direct citizen research to create galleries of viewable campaign ads for every congressional seat. You can, for example, watch the infamous "Aqua Buddha" ad slinging mud at Republican Rand Paul on the Kentucky senate seat ad page. Or, head over to the Nevada senate seat ad page to watch several ads targeting Democrat Harry Reid using pictures of scary-looking immigrants. Because AdTracker is built using forms that anyone can edit, you can also add links to contextual stories, like the fact that most Kentucky voters think the "Aqua Buddha" was in poor taste or that one of those scary immigrant ads attacking Harry Reid was rated "barely true" by Politifact.

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Put Some Facts In a Friend's Mailbox

October 25, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Know anyone who's still undecided about how to vote in a Senate or House race? Help them make a smart decision by using the Sunlight Foundation's new Influence Explorer Postcard tool to send them (via USPS) some unbiased information about who's funding the candidates' campaigns and who they might owe their allegiance to if elected to Congress. With the unprecedented amount of corporate and special-interest money being spent this election on misleading voters about candidates' positions and records, voters need all the help they can get to find actual facts. Sending a postcard with Influence Explorer is simple. Just select the House or Senate race you want, choose which candidate or candidates you want to display on the postcard, enter a mailing address, an optional personal message, and click send. It costs $2, which you can pay quickly and easily with an Amazon account.

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Repaying the Favor

October 24, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The real problem with too-big-to-fail is that in a post-Citizens United world there is virtually no limit to the amount of money these enormous companies can spend on making sure their favorite lawmakers get elected. Too big to fail is primarily a political problem. It's a self-perpetuating cycle whereby huge companies are allowed to grow indefinitely (i.e. not fail organically) because they have the financial muscle to buy-off the lawmakers in a position to protect them from regulation and bail them out when they get into trouble.

Not surprisingly, in this election cycle, companies that have taken money from the 2008 TARP bailout are focusing their political giving on candidates who support the bailout, oppose new financial regulations, and are most likely to be in positions of power in the next session of Congress.

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The Pitfalls of Email, The Power of Openness

October 21, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Here's a scary indicator of the state of politics. Of all the substantial legislation has gone through Congress this session that people might be reviewing as the midterms approach -- i.e. health care reform, financial reform, stimulus measures -- the two bills people are viewing most often these days on on OpenCongress are outlandish, non-viable proposals that have no support and no chance of being taken seriously by congressional leaders, ever. These bills are getting twice as much attention as the new health care law, and five times the attention of financial reform. In fact, the closer we get to the midterms, the more attention they get.

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The Obama Administration has appealed the recent court ruling suspending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." They want a more orderly repeal to be legislated by Congress after the military completes a study on how to prepare for the change. But the problem is that the study isn't due out until December 1, and the Democrats probably aren't going to have the votes to get this done in the next session. So if Obama and congressional Democrats really want DADT to end, they have to stick around in December and get it done.

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The Tax Cut No One Noticed

October 20, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Did you notice that your federal tax bill was lower last year? If you're like most people, you didn't. But believe it or not, one of the first things Barack Obama and 111th Congress did when they took office in 2009 was pass an income tax cut for about 95% of U.S. tax payers. The New York Times reported yesterday on why this went so unnoticed:

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Unemployed Get Organized for a Lame-Duck Fight

October 19, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The last time Congress tried to extend unemployment insurance it took them 52 days to overcome Republican opposition and pass a bill, causing a six-week lapse in payments for millions of long-term unemployed The time before that it took 28 day and caused a ten-day lapse in payments. Before that, Congress spent 43 days on a bill to add extra weeks, leaving millions of long-term unemployed without a lifeline for more than a month.

When Congress comes back after the midterms, they'll only have a few days to extend federal unemployment insurance to the 8 million or so people who rely on it for paying their bills and feeding their families. This time, the unemployed are getting out ahead with a major campaign to push Congress for an extension well in advance.

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The post-election lame duck session is going to be pretty much all about the Senate, with the House hanging around to sign off on Senate amendments to bills they have already passed and not much else. But there is one thing the House is going to take the lead on. On Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8] announced that she was scheduling a vote on the Seniors Protection Act of 2010, which would give a one-time payment of $250 to social security recipients who are struggling in the recession economic downturn.

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In my article yesterday refuting the claims Republicans are making in their attack ads alleging that conservative Democrats have liberal voting records, several people in the comments asked if I was going to address similar falsehoods in Democratic ads. I responded that of course I would if someone could show me an example of a Democratic attack ad that uses data to bolster lies. The suggestion was that I look at Obama's claim that the Chamber of Commerce is funding ads against Democrats with contributions from foreign entities. So let me address that.

Here's what we know about the Chamber:

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NRCC Falsifies Data to Smear Democratic Candidates

October 13, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The National Republican Congressional Committee is running an intentionally misleading national campaign designed to make conservative Democrats in Congress look like liberals. They need to be called out.

The NRCC is airing attack ads against dozens of the most conservative Democrats in the House, who tend to be from districts that are considered possible Republican pick-ups in the upcoming midterm elections. Their strategy is to link these conservative Dems to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8]. But the data they are using does not support their claims. Click through for an explanation of why these NRCC attack ads are unfair & unethical, and to find better, more empirically-justified ways of evaluating a member's ideological position in Congress.

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As campaign season heats up and and political ads get more and more negative, candidates are turning to OpenCongress for a more accurate picture of their voting records. As reported by Politico and the Washington Post today and the New York Times yesterday, Rep. Bill Owens [D, NY-23], who's in a competitive race against Republican challenger Matt Doheny, is using data generated by our head-to-head vote comparison tool in a new ad touting his bipartisan voting record. But what does the data really say?

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OpenCongress at Personal Democracy Forum - Europe

October 11, 2010 - by David Moore

Last week, I had the opportunity to represent the OpenCongress team at the Personal Democracy Forum - Europe conference held at the University of Barcelona. PdF is already known as the leading tech-politics conference on the U.S. side of the pond, and they reliably exported their curatorial skills to Spain for the second year in a row, gathering a remarkable group of participants. Check out the full conference agendas for Day One & Day Two , and click through for video from my presentation as part of a panel on "Transparency and Open Information in the US and Western Europe". 

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Congress Links

October 8, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Lots of news on the foreclosure fraud crisis and that bill passed by Congress last week that could have made it harder for homeowners to fight unjust foreclosure. Also, new jobs numbers are out, and they're not good. Also, what happens to the EPA's authority to regulate carbon emissions if the Republicans take over Congress next year? That and more in today's round-up of links on Congress.

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