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Health Care Reform and OpenCongress

April 2, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

computer viewing health care reform on OpenCongress

We built OpenCongress because the government source for congressional information was frustratingly unfriendly, and because we saw the potential for using emerging web tools to make congressional information as open, engaging and helpful as it ought to be. Since we launched more than 3 years ago, we’ve seen some big issues come and go — immigration reform, the Iraq war, the financial bailout — but nothing got people looking for factual information on what Congress was up to as much as health care reform. This 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 civic engagement where the government’s bill pages on the THOMAS website offers dead-end walls of data without 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 health care bill pages instead of THOMAS is gratifying.

Of the visitors to OpenCongress’ health care bill pages, 1,128,570 clicked through to view and read 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 acrimonious 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. The 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 has been political bloggers. Because so much of the public discussion was focused on “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 new questions. Here are just a few good examples that I was able to dig up with some quick Googling. 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 in the bill 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 provisions. Pallimed, a hospice and palliative medicine blog, discusses advance care planning provisions. Cynical Synapse fact-checks Rep. Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. And 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 gain an understanding of provisions related to grandfathered coverage, funding for the public option, affordability credits, undocumented immigrants, and more. You can hardly scroll through the text of the 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? I’d love to hear in the comments.

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  • tracim813 04/02/2010 11:47am

    I really enjoy your website, and I’ve extensively used the information. The only negative comment I would make are the recent “editorials.” I am moderate/Independent, and one of things I really liked about this site was it provided unbiased information. In my (humble) opinion, I believe those posts (which are on Facebook) take away from the service you are trying to provide. To be fair, I must admit I do not agree with the stance you have taken, which seems to have a decidedly left-wing slant, but I can say I would feel the same way if you and I agreed on every little thing. We need someone to provide the service you are providing. If you start taking “sides,” you (just in my opinion) lose that edge. From comments I’ve seen on Facebook, I’m not the only person who believes this.

  • Comm_reply
    ThomasDHurst 04/02/2010 1:46pm

    I agree with Traci. I think if you want to have editorials have it be balanced (i.e. two writers addressing both sides). However, don’t go so far as to give “fair” coverage if it is an issue where one side is using misinformation. I think having some people with integrity and insight (scour Govloop for some folks) to give us the inside scoop on legislation would be great.

  • ThomasDHurst 04/02/2010 1:47pm

    Perhaps this is already possible, but how can I filter out comments (on the comment on the bill page) or polls that are used by district? I like getting the overview of the country, but it would be great to be able to filter out information by users’ zip code to see what people in my district are feeling/saying.

  • LucasFoxx 04/02/2010 3:04pm

    I only come here for the news. I still read the bills at Thomas from the Library of Congress. (or PDF’s via here) I like their linked table of contents. I’ve never been able to read large bills on Open Congress. (To date, none of my e-mails about it to OC staff, in general or individuals, have been responded to.)

    I like the Tracked Items. It’s great to have all of that in one spot. It would be nice to be able to have more than 12 Bills. Finished Committee Pages here would be good. The word limit for comments is sometimes annoying, but then, so am I; and we are both completely understandable.

    That’s about it. I like the site. I keep coming back.

  • LucasFoxx 04/02/2010 3:06pm

    Post-Script: I often end up on a Page not found, yet a banner telling me I made a comment.

  • LucasFoxx 04/02/2010 3:08pm

    Ah! Make that a “Note” banner saying “Your comment has been saved.”

    And I keep coming back.

    (Wait for it….)

  • LucasFoxx 04/02/2010 3:11pm

    We’re sorry but the page you are requesting doesn’t exist or has been moved.

    Let’s fix this together. Please send an email to telling us what you were doing when the error occurred, along with a link to the page you were trying to access. Thank you!

    (don’t mind me… I’ll just be over here…)

  • LucasFoxx 04/06/2010 7:56am

    No response here either. However, it is clear they did something. Now all of the new blog pages have catastrophic script failures.

  • davidmoore 04/06/2010 10:46am

    Hi Lucas, David with OC here. Not sure which emails you’re referring to, but the best way to contact is us by emailing :: In the future we hope to have .pdf versions of bill text avail. for download. And if you’ve received a page load error, it’s probably just a temporary glitch, and reloading the page should work. Writing you individually now, thanks for using OpenCongress.

  • paulfulton 11/15/2011 6:55am

    The inspecting all of the websites they are interested in, and instead subscribe to websites such that all new content is pushed onto their browsers when it becomes available.Thanks for sharing the informative post. Regards. candidiasis treatment

  • ronabner56 05/15/2013 8:57am

    I’m glad that your initiative was a success. I sold sun chlorella tablets for more than three years and I realized what a health care reform can imply. The sooner it will be finished, the better it will be for us.

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