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Congress is broken. OpenCongress is a solution. Support our non-profit work.

July 29, 2010 - by David Moore

The current U.S. Congress is broken and corrupt. By broken, we mean the un-democratic rules of the U.S. Senate and unfair filibustering practices have crashed the system. By corrupt, we don’t mean one party or the other, one set of legislative priorities or another  — rather, the basic rules of Congress as a public institution have crumbled in the tide of money in politics. We’re working to fix it, as part of the reform community. We have a good start, but there’s a long way to go.

We’re putting out this claim that Congress is fundamentally broken not only because we’re a free and open-source public resource website, independent from the government and any political party. Over the past three years, here on OpenCongress, we’ve tracked some remarkably busy legislative sessions. And despite all the activity coming from Capitol Hill, both the legislative results and the filibustered gridlock, public opinion of our democratically-elected government is trending sourly downward.

OpenCongress offers anyone a front-row seat to the intense, roiling public disaffection the public has with Congress. We cannot overstate the findings from the evidence on our many comment boards and participation tools: people on all points on the political spectrum are hugely frustrated with their elected officials. We cannot say this enough: the American street is massively angry. There are a lot of reasons for that, some more defensible than others. But given Congress’ closed-off posture, opaque operating procedures, and well-known addiction to fundraising, we see this response as pretty justified. For us it comes down to a basic point: transparency, and only total transparency, breeds public trust. (Congress’ current closed-off posture, as a corollary, breeds public cynicism and disengagement.) Below, I lay out some of the major structural problems, the big-picture solutions, and most importantly, specific examples of how OpenCongress worked for civic engagement in three major areas this year: health care, financial reform, and unemployment benefits.

Focusing first on public opinion of government itself, a good starting point is this poll published by Gallup last week: Gallup’s 2010 Confidence in Institutions poll finds Congress ranking dead last out of the 16 institutions rated this year. Eleven percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress, down from 17% in 2009 and a percentage point lower than the previous low for Congress, recorded in 2008.

… there’s no shortage of supplementary polling data about the malicious role of money in politics. According to Polling, in a Harris Poll conducted Feb. 16-21, 2010, asked if various entities “have/has too much or too little power and influence in Washington”, the top groups for “too much” were Big companies (87%), banks and financial institutions (83%), political lobbyists (83%), and political action committees (83%). (For one data point for context, only 21% of respondents said “nonprofit organizations” [like PPF] have too much influence… I guess I had better get some chiefs of staff on the phone, stat, and let them know in no uncertain terms, on behalf of the non-profit community, how disappointed we are. Pretty much kidding.)

By way of quick-fast additional citation, some other great resources for data on the pervasive influence on money in politics are as follows: OpenSecrets, the terrific non-partisan primary source for campaign contribution info; MAPLight, another non-profit connecting the dots between money and actual votes in government; FollowTheMoney, the go-to resource for state-level data; Transparency Data, the awesomely-standardized clearinghouse from our founding supporters, the Sunlight Foundation; LittleSis, the involuntary Facebook for powerful Americans; OpenPlans, a non-profit using open-source technology for good government, journalism, and community planning; Fix Congress First, a leading advocate for comprehensive electoral reform (about which more shortly); Public Campaign, working for clean elections; clearinghouse of objective poll data FiveThirtyEight; and many more I haven’t listed here but value highly.

Currently, then, Congress is systemically corrupt — not only the traditional quid-pro-quo corruption (think “money in a bag”), but also deep & empirical links between moneyed interests and outcomes of public policy through the legislative process. The systemic corruption of Congress is understood viscerally by many Americans, even if they only follow the news from D.C. casually — think of how many times the phrase “… died in the Senate” has been uttered in the news this year alone. Advocates for reform and the transparency community have been active on these issues in various ways for decades. So I lay out the above first to establish the big-picture problems: lack of trust in our elected officials; lack of transparency in election law, campaign finance, and the bill-to-law process; too much evidence of a captured government with diminished authority and regulatory capacities in the public interest; too much money in politics, causing apathy about political change in our everyday lives.

We’re working on the fixes for these structural problems in our representative democracy. OpenCongress takes official government information, combines it with real-world context from news and blog coverage, bakes in data about campaign contributions, tosses in social networking and public participation tools, and wraps it all in a user-friendly interface — that’s our custom transparency+engagement blend, so to speak. But all of this takes work from our dedicated team of open-source activists working at non-profit rates. For example, our massive database of government data costs thousands of dollars per month in web hosting costs. We need your help to keep OpenCongress alive.

So the poor health of our contemporary democracy is a problem to overcome and organize around, a macro-socio-economic bummer… looking forward, then, what are the realistic first steps towards a cure? Staying on the big-picture level, there’s a lot more work to do articulating our reform agenda. In very brief, OpenCongress and PPF endorse the following:

  • Full Public Financing of Federal Elections — more details to come, lots of options here.
  • Filibuster Reform to ensure fair parliamentary procedure — lots more details to come.
  • The Eight Principles of Open Government Data — we demand that the government comply, immediately and in full, with all of the community-generated eight principles. Nothing short of this standard is sufficient in a true democracy.

The 8 Principles may sound a bit technical at first, but at its heart, it would be of tremendous concrete benefit to you reading this now. It would mean that OpenCongress could have real-time access to actions and votes in Congress as they happen, instead of the 12-24 hour delay in updating information from primary government sources we are forced to observe, as well as many other open data sources and media (e.g., liberate video footage of important committee hearings and more). Currently, data from our government is Defective By Design. To everyone at THOMAS, the Library of Congress staff & consultants, and the Task Force on Bulk Data that’s been convened, please note our sharp position on this: it is absurd that the government is not moving swiftly towards compliance with these basic open standards. Public data belongs to the public, and should be fully open. The counterpoint or mitigating position to this stance has yet to be persuasively put forward to our knowledge, though attempts are welcome if you don’t believe that taxpayer-funded data should be available to its constituents. PPF is gearing up for more open-source, collaborative online activist projects to make sure this achievable first goal comes to pass (and if you can help propel our work, please contact us, we’re easy to find and eager to talk.) 

In short, our position is that government transparency, and only total transparency, breeds public trust. It’s the very basis for true reform, as Prof. Lawrence Lessig’s group FixCongressFirst (and the Change-Congress community) articulates concisely in their support of the Fair Elections Now Act: Special interests pump millions of dollars into our elections, giving them more influence over the political system than anyone. Until we fix our broken campaign finance laws, these special interests will block substantive reform, from the left and from the right, on issue after issue.

To be sure, we’re deeply invested in fixing Congress to ensure a more fair, responsive, and meritocratic representative democracy. To recruit support along the road to reform, we keep coming back to the fact that the status quo is fundamentally flawed. We say both “fundamentally” and “flawed” because, over the past three years on OpenCongress, we’ve tracked and explained in detail some remarkably busy legislative sessions. Think back over the news — the previous 110th Congress, from 2007-2008, saw a slew of national security legislation, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), and in the Fall of ’08, you may remember, bank bailout & real estate crisis bills galore. Not to mention high-stakes Congressional wrangling over immigration, unemployment extensions, economic stimulus, and thousands more items of legislation affecting every issue in the wide world (and naming a lot of post offices).

This 111th session of Congress has been even busier — in fact, it’s been our busiest year ever, with over one million people per month visiting OpenCongress for information about what’s really happening in Congress. You surely recall the greatest hits: health care reform, financial regulation, and recently, unemployment benefits. Plus tens of thousands of more bills — for a neutral overview of the hottest bills so far this year, see our most-viewed bills, the bills most-written about in the news, most on blogs, and our unique Battle Royale forum, the bills most active with our user community (e.g., tracked and commented on). For a helpfully-curated editorial companion of major bills in the mix session, see our handy list of Hot Bills by Issue Area.

OpenCongress is a starter fix for these flaws. We’re a free, open-source, non-profit, and non-partisan public resource (more About Us). We’re web-based, independent, collaborative, and active in the open-source community. Over the past three years, OpenCongress has grown to become the most-visited government transparency website in the U.S., and maybe in the world. Every month, we serve close to three million pageviews and receive millions of automated requests for our open data via our free widgets, RSS feeds, and API. I’m especially proud of the work by my colleague Donny Shaw on our blog — he and our team have written over 2,000 blog posts, demystifying and explaining what’s happening in Congress in as plain language as possible (thanks also to our dedicated volunteers). To build public knowledge and reach the most people possible, we maintain outposts in (closed, proprietary) social media: over 6,000 followers on our micro-publishing, over 5,000 members of our social networking group. The dialed-in My OpenCongress community (using our open-source, open standards web code) has grown to 150,000 members — people using peer-to-peer communication in a non-commercial forum (how rare is that these days) to track, share, and comment on everything they care about in Congress. Below, please find some initial overviews of successful use cases of transparency to truly get the public involved — even if not as widely and sufficiently as we seek to achieve someday — in the inside-the-Beltway world of corporate lobbying, resistance to scientific methods, conventional-wisdom-beholden, Sunday-morning-talk-show-circuit-ogling, secret-holding, filibustering cloak rooms.

Health Care Reform

After the debate over health care reform, our Lead Blogger Donny Shaw assembled this interesting roundup explaining how individuals and organizations used OpenCongress to engage the process: members of Congress, townhall attendees, bloggers, and bill-discerning citizen watchdogs. Donny writes: One of the most impressive uses of OpenCongress occurred when hundreds of people used our bill text commenting feature to collaboratively analyze the original House health care bill. The text of the 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.

The legislative activity on health care reform centered around H.R.3590: Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The most user activity around this bill, in turn, occurred from March 15, 2010 to March 22, 2010. Over this period, the H.R.3590 profile received 70,301 pageviews. Its official text page received 13,259 views, and associated pages received 15,919 pageviews in total. 2,010 users tracked the bill, adding 188 comments. OpenCongress aggregated 966 news articles and 3718 blog posts for this bill from around the Web. At its peak, the bill page received 40,456 pageviews in the days before the Senate passed the bill. 

Financial Reform

On another major issue in the news this summer, financial regulation & reform, the legislative activity on financial reform centered around two bills: H.R.4173, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and S.3217, the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010. The most activity around the House bill occurred from July 15 to July 27. Over this period, H.R.4173’s profile page received 17,359 pageviews. Its official text page received 5,674 views, and associated pages received 4,383 pageviews in total. 498 users tracked the bill, adding 76 comments. OpenCongress aggregated 494 news articles and 1,755 blog articles for this bill from around the Web. At its peak, the bill page received 3,152 pageviews on the day it was signed into law. Staying on #finreg, the most activity around the Senate bill occurred from April 20 to May 26. Over this period, S.3217’s profile page received 22,084 pageviews. Its official text page received 3,381 views, and associated pages received 14,521 pageviews in total. 281 users tracked the bill, adding 64 comments. OpenCongress aggregated 270 news articles and 841 blog articles for this bill in total. At its peak, the bill page received 1,935 pageviews on the day after it was turned into H.R.4173 as a substitute amendment.

Unemployment Benefits

Last for now is the hottest issue of late on OC: unemployment. The legislative activity on unemployment insurance & benefits extension centered around H.R. 4213 – Unemployment Compensation Extension Act of 2010 (previously the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010). The most activity around the bill occurred from June 6, 2010 to June 30, 2010. Over this period, H.R. 4213’s profile page received 205,349 pageviews. Its official text page received 2,893 views, and associated pages received 101,290 pageviews in total. 1,660 users tracked the bill, adding 1,145 comments. OpenCongress aggregated 662 news articles and 1,991 blog articles for this bill in total. At its peak, the bill page received 74,122 pageviews in the days before the bill passed to the Senate for consideration.

Keeping on this hot topic, action around UI extension also included H.R. 5618 – the Restoration of Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act of 2010.The most activity around the bill occurred from June 29, 2010 to July 20, 2010. Over this period, HR 5618’s profile page received 86,533 pageviews. Its official text page received 1,232 views, and associated pages received 33,186 pageviews in total. 539 users tracked the bill, adding 271 comments. OpenCongress aggregated 63 news articles and 315 blog posts for this bill from around the Web. At its peak, the bill page received 51,729 pageviews in the days before the bill was passed in the House, and moved to the Senate for consideration.

Building off the public knowledge that people were sharing amongst themselves, peer-to-peer, in our comment forums, we moved quickly to build the Benefit Wiki project on the publicly-editable, open-source OC Wiki. Every step along the way, Donny Shaw followed the latest developments and substance of the bills in an accessible way on our Blog. Friend of OC Micah Sifry recently composed an introductory blog-post study about the impressive organic community that arose on OC around this truly kitchen-table issue, one that continues to move people passionately. For more success stories, use cases, press coverage of OC, and blog mentions of our resources, please see our helpful-and-up-to-date-but-not-quite-exhaustive Uses page. If you’re a blogger interested in the upcoming midterm elections, don’t sleep on our RaceTracker project, non-partisan, fully-sourced and documented.

And that’s just the start. For the best overview of the “long tail” of engagement with Congress that’s enabled here on OC (encompassing around 5,000 individual bills per session, over 4,000 issue areas, 535+ members of Congress, and hundreds of thousands of links gathered & combined from around the open Web), visit our extensive list of most-viewed bills (that’s for the past week, see also the past year), and don’t forget to check out what’s trending variously hot or cool over on Battle Royale. One of the ways I think about the public service that we provide on OpenCongress goes as follows: if I’m reading a newspaper, a blog, or find myself somewhere with cable TV news blaring, and I hear about some bill in Congress titled something-or-other, I can rest assured that if I’m interested later, I have a go-to online resource that’s easy-to-use, authoritative, and rich-in-context to learn about it, and then share what I’ve gathered with my social network. Before OpenCongress existed, the government transparency community was still urging THOMAS to enter the semi-modern age and implement such basic features / best practices as permalinks, RSS feeds, and bulk data access. (We’re still waiting on some of these and other common-sense features, but we’re also working around them as quickly as our limited resources allow.)

Now, with OpenCongress, we have a powerful tool — free and open-source — that provides a comprehensive snapshot of every bill, vote, issue, and member of Congress, with the crucial context of money-in-politics information and user-friendly socially-intelligent tools to make your voice heard. As we put it on our PPF Projects page: We’re working towards a future in which the public at large can conveniently access the best available info about all public actions at every level of government, then organize civic actions of their own in response and in dialogue with their elected officials. Until then, we don’t need to pull any punches: we’re going to keep fixing what’s so badly broken about Congress, but we need your support of our non-profit work and our larger mission of open government. To that end, we’ve just announced the first-ever grassroots donation drive on OpenCongress. If you support a more transparent Congress, please donate now and help us spread the word (Twitter, Facebook). Donating is easy, secure (processed through Paypal), and private (we don’t share any info with any third parties). It takes just a minute — we’ve tested it thoroughly, so it’s smoooooth. For more background & info, hop on over to our fundraiser announcement blog post yesterday.

With OpenCongress, we have a good start on a more transparent government, even though there is lots more to do. But we also have big plans. With your charitable donation, OpenCongress can become a significantly more powerful platform for civic engagement more broadly, and quickly. There are so many more aspects and angles and nuances to our daily political lives than Congressional legislation: there’s community empowerment, participatory budgeting, democratizing media, and much more. With your help, we can build on this foundation of transparency, trigger a positive feedback loop of an open and accountable government to breed trust, productively affect public policy outcomes, and re-invigorate our daily political lives in our democracy. 

We’re leading the fight to fix Congress, but like you, we want to do more. Make a tax-deductible donation to support OpenCongress, and let us know what you think: writeus[at]

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