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Health Care Reform and OpenCongress

March 26, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

We built OpenCongress because the government source for congressional information was incredibly unfriendly, and because we saw the potential for using emerging web tools to make congressional information as open, engaging and friendly as it ought to be. Since we launched more than 3 years ago, we’ve seen some big issues come and go — immigration, Iraq, the financial bailout — but nothing got people looking for factual information on what Congress was up to as much as health care reform. The past year has been a huge test of where we’re at with improving access to Congress.

In the spirit of transparency, here’s an overview of how OpenCongress was used during the health care debate.

The Numbers

To date, since the first of the health care reform bills in Congress was introduced in July, 2,021,575 people have visited the OpenCongress pages for the four bills that came together to form the final health care reform law (H.R.3200, H.R.3962, H.R.3590 and H.R.4872). I like to think of our bill pages as offering a gateway to engagement where the government’s bill pages on the THOMAS website offer dead-end walls of data with no concern for the user/citizen. With that in mind, more than 2 million people reached the open-source, user-friendly, contextualized and social information presented on our bill pages instead of THOMAS is gratifying.

Of the visitors to OpenCongress’ health care bill pages, 1,128,570 clicked through to view the full legislative text and approximately 169,000 used our contact-Congress tool to write directly to their senators or representative about the bills. Everyone had access to our peer-to-peer sharing features, uniquely aggregated news and blog coverage of the bills, social data, comment boards and more.

Between the four bills, 2,952 public comments were recorded and thousands more were lodged on the text pages referring to specific provisions in the bills.

The Uses

Members of Congress — Several senators and reps. posted links to OpenCongress health care pages on their websites, but the most innovative use from members came from the House Republican Caucus in November. The Republicans set up an Amplify account and extracted chunks of legislative text from the health care bill, giving their take and opening them up for discussion. They used OpenCongress’ bill text permalinking tool to refer people back to the specific lines of text in the 1,990 page bill that they’re talking about. This is a great example of the sort of textually-informed discussion of bills we’re trying to facilitate, where people are actually encouraged to do their own fact-checking and get involved on a high level.

Townhall Goers — In August, as townhall protests of health care reform erupted around the country, one conservative blogger called on downhill attendees to stop shouting and start asking tough questions about specific provisions in the bill instead. At the Hot Air blog, blogger “kbanaian” ran a series where he would take a section of the legislative text from OpenCongress post it, link to it, and suggest a series of questions about it that townhall attendees can ask their congressmen. He idea was to spark discussion of facts and provisions as “a substitute for yelling.”

Bloggers — One of the key user groups throughout the health care debate was political bloggers. Because so much of the public debate was focused around “what’s actually in the bill,” hundreds of bloggers used OpenCongress to provide links directly to lines of text in the bills that were being discussed in the news, to debunk, verify, or raise questions. Here are just a few good examples that I was able to dig up with some quick Goggling. Iowa Liberal debunked claims about wasteful spending items. World Net Daily draws attention to a provision they say would set up a “health care army.” Xconomy links to perks for biotech. Ezra Klein debunks an emerging smear before it can really take off. McJoan at DailyKos hosts discussions about pre-existing conditions and recessions. Pallimed, a hospice and palliative medicine blog, discusses advance care planning provisions. Cynical Synapse fact-checks Re. Joe Wilson. Alaskan Librarian extracts language banning federal funds for abortions.

Bill Discerners — One of the most impressive uses of OpenCongress occurred over the summer when hundreds of people used our bill text commenting feature to collaboratively analyze the original House health care bill. The text of theta bill garnered more than 2,000 comments, with as many as 201 comments on a single line of text within the 1,000+ page bill. People worked together to understand provisions related to grandfathered coverage, funding for the public option, affordability credits, undocumented immigrants, and more. You can hardly scroll through the gigantic bill without seeing at least one comment on a section on your screen at any given moment. The comments provide an incredible access point for people looking to dig in deeper and get the facts on what’s in the actual legislative text.

How did you use OpenCongress during the health care debate? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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