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December 20, 2011 - by David Moore

As 2011 ends, the first session of the 112th U.S. Congress stumbles to a bad-faith curtain. The third branch of federal government in our representative democracy, Congress is down to a new record-low 11% approval rating, as per Gallup News this week. “This earns Congress a 17% yearly average for 2011, the lowest annual congressional approval rating in Gallup history,” they report. USA #1 – we’ve hit a new bottom! These are the despised, fallible elected officials who write legislation shaping our laws, public policy priorities, & federal budget.

Not content to set just a couple historical record lows, they achieved at least a third: 2011 was the most “do-nothing” Congress since 1995, when control of each chamber was similarly split betweent the two major parties, with just 66 legislative items enacted, as per our valued data partner, GovTrack. The real-world texture & community experience of our lives in contemporary America is profoundly affected by individuals who are obligated to spend between 30% and 70% of their time fundraising for re-election campaigns, as per Prof. Lessig.

As a professional Congressional watchdog and an extremely cynical critic of systemic corruption in the legislative process, even I’m shocked by the brazen unaccountability of the 112th U.S. Congress. We’ve hit a new bottom, but I think it’s possible we haven’t hit bottom bottom. I’m not the only one who thinks representative democracy in America has past a threshold of viability in its current form – at least without comprehensive electoral reforms, such as fair elections, net neutrality for independent media on the open Web, and fully open government data now. I reiterate what I wrote last year: the legislative process is systemically corrupt, there is no sufficient degree of transparency in government, and Congress is fundamentally broken.

Over the past year, our OC Blog has been (diligently but unhappily) covering — in accessible language, with citations to the work of our inspirational #opengov partners, official bill text, helpful news & blog coverage, and insightful comments from our 200,000 “MyOC” members – some of the ways in which our national priorities are so egregiously skewed ::

  • #NDAA — the major Defense Authorization bill in the news, H.R. 1540 — view all OC blog coveragesecret Congressional meetings resulted in a bill allowing the military to detain U.S. citizens without charge or trial — pending a particular veto threat from President Obama & legislative wrangling to come, as of now, only 2% of MyOC users support (6 aye, 317 nay, making it the 12th-most-opposed bill of the past year by OC commenters). Video of NDAA panel discussion from this past weekend on MSNBC’s Up With Chris.
  • House GOP hypocrisy on legislative procedure is becoming double-speak farcical, with no significant & good-faith effort on bipartisan jobs legislation, demand-side stimulus & pro-growth government reform in their evident intent to keep the economy in recession in advance of 2012 federal elections. Gallup News reports that in Dec. 2011, 8.5% of American workers are unemployed and 18.4% are underemployed. For more background, see OC Blog coverage of the House’s deliberate efforts to avoid advancing viable legislation on the jobs crisis.
  • Last week’s NYT review of Prof. Lessig’s important new book Republic, Lostnoted, “In a November interview with Boston Review [Lessig] noted that in the first quarter of 2011 Congress — awash in special interest money from banks attempting to push through a bill allowing them to collect per-transaction debit-card fees — spent more time on that issue than on unemployment, the deficit, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care or global warming.” OpenCongress is looking forward to taking part in the new coalition work of United Republic in mitigating the effects of systemic corruption, as per Prof. Lessig and others.
  • Speaking of the terrible reality of catastrophic climate degradation, GOP senators continue to refuse to acknowledge the peer-reviewed science that has as-deadly-serious-as-possible-and-nearly-unimaginable-hordes of cascading, harmful global implications.
  • This past week, as you likely heard in the news (e.g., NPR), House Republicans rejected a bipartisan agreement from the Senate to extend payroll tax cuts. The outcome of this failure to compromise will include higher taxes for 160 million Americans, reduced Medicare payments, and an end in January to benefits for 6 million long-term unemployed people.

Clearly, then, there are a lot of issues OpenCongress is covering every day and helping citizen watchdogs, political bloggers, journalists, community organizers, and grassroots activists follow. As always, there’s a significant public demand for open data & user-friendly blog coverage of what’s happening in the closed-off, arcane halls of Congress – as well as free organizing tools we released this summer (OCv3) to email-your-members-of-Congress in a social public forum. Year-in-review summary: 2011 saw over 4 million visits to OpenCongress, over 10 million pageviews, and tens of millions of automated requests for data every week from our massive open database, including our extensive libre RSS feeds and our open API and open-source code.

I’m excited to say that in the past six months we’ve also sent over 50,000 emails from the public to their members of Congress – see a sample of the latest stop-#SOPA letters – we’re continually working to surface more interesting constituent communications in fully-libre-content (except for users’ personal info & non-public letters), open-data on the open Web so you can browse & search compelling personal stories for every bill, member, issue, U.S. state, Congressional district, and zip-code-plus-four area. We have big plans – indeed, detailed feature specs, if you can help fund our work and make them a reality – to make the process of whipping Congress for your community more social and continually-connected (ideally, reciprocal information- and feedback-sharing with one’s representatives).

Summer 2011, with the release of OCv3, was the first time the public had access to a free & open-source tool for emailing their members of Congress on a not-for-profit Web resource. And the crazy thing is that there are gigantic, more-or-less evident deficits like this throughout our everyday civic experience – from understanding the federal budget to streamlining constituent communication at the state & local levels – that can be significantly addressed through free & open-source technology, and that’s exactly what PPF seeks to do as a public charity. We’re built on a foundation of radical transparency in open government data, but our core competency is open-source web apps featuring user-friendly & social engagement tools. Why can’t staying in touch with your representatives online be as easy as using a social networking service or streaming video website? Only because there hasn’t yet been enough public-interest investment in open technology for meaningful civic participation. In short, in a way, that’s the major roadblock.

The team behind OC – viz. Andy, Donny, Conor & me – do this not-for-profit, public-interest work because we believe transparency and accountability are essential to a healthy & functional representative democracy. I’m particularly proud of the message-builder interface we built for Contact-Congress on OC — we took all the data we uniquely aggregate on OC, put it in a handy at-your-fingertips drag-and-drop tool, and highlighted the critical campaign contribution data that is the root problem of the “do-nothing” 112th Congress’ frustrating dysfunction. Screenshot at right – try it yourself by emailing your members of Congress to oppose #SOPA – or browse our editorially-curated list of major bills by issue area and click the buttons in the right-hand sidebar of the bill profile page to “Send Your Rep/Senator a Letter”. 

I’m also admiringly proud of my friend & colleague Donny’s insightful OC Blog posts (click a tag on a bottom of any post to view more, e.g. on #SOPA) – over 300 published this year in an accessible real-world language, rich with citations, which I enjoy reading myself every day to parse the major news stories (cit.: “those clowns in Congress did it again… what a bunch of clowns”). Donations to PPF directly support Donny’s helpful everyday OC Blog posts & social media updates – covering the baffling arcane world of Congress and highlighting other news articles, blog posts, relevant campaign contribution data, and social wisdom from around the Web.

Coming early next year we have some remarkably useful new community projects on OC’s semantic MediaWiki, edited by Conor, which we’ll be unveiling to mitigate the all-consuming politically-disorienting lunacy that will be the stunted charade of the 2012 election cycle (fair elections now!).

As we saw in 2008 and 2010, our site traffic trends upwards in an election year — visitors from every corner of the country, from every conceivable starting political ideology, find their way to OC through search engines and links to encounter a more intelligible information display and engagement tools for official government information.

We seek to do our part to walk them up what I described as the chain of engagement: by providing education & open-data, then a user-friendly design, then free tools for tracking & commenting & sharing on topics in Congress, through writing a letter to their elected officials and sharing response with their communities (online and in their districts & neighborhoods). See more ideas an our OpenGovernment feature wish-list.

Next year we’ll release even more free tools for the public to organize their communities and whip Congress around bills and issues. But we’re a tiny non-profit project, and we need your help just to keep OpenCongress up and running. Donations to OC through our 501c3 non-profit organization, the Participatory Politics Foundation, are tax-exempt, and go directly towards our (considerable) server costs and (free, libre & open-source) site maintenance. OC is used every day by tens of thousands of political bloggers, citizen watchdogs, and first-time visitors in need of a user-friendly interface for Congress — we truly have exceeded our bandwidth in providing this public resource. Get radical for transparency and help support our work with a year-end donation:

  • Donate to OpenCongress – click that yellow “donate now” button and a a tax-exempt donation through PayPal takes less than two minutes (we’ve tested it for thorough smoothness, no hassles, you know we’re all about user experience).
  • Web developers, programmers, and designers – we badly need volunteer time to help build more useful pages on OpenCongress and surface the tons of information being generated every day by our user community of over 200,000 people. Drop us a line and we’ll plug you in according to interest & skills: develop at
  • Charitable foundations and philanthropists – we have a good start with OpenCongress &, but we need more resources to further develop these free & not-for-profit web apps for civic engagement. With a bit of additional tax-exempt funding, both sites can be far more powerful platforms for contacting elected officials, tracking their actions in a social online forum, and fighting systemic corruption – help us grow, and feel free to download and circulate our non-profit funding prospectus. Please be in touch: david at
  • Online media companies and issue-based organizations – our open-source Contact-Congress code can be customized to easily email your members’ messages to their U.S. senators, representative, and other elected officials — then comment and share their letter over social media such as Twitter & Facebook. Hire us for Web development or boutique research on bills & issues in Congress — consistent with our online-education & open-data & public-service mission, to be sure. For more info on PPF consulting in open-source software, Ruby on Rails web code, and other technology, email me at david at
  • Please consider for a moment how terribly dysfunctional the U.S. Congress is. And then how important it is that OpenCongress continues to build transparency and accountability in it. We really need your help to keep going. Donate now.

Thanks for using OC in 2011 – please make a tax-exempt donation, and as always, let us know what you think. Happy Holidays from our team, above: David, Andy, Donny & Conor — and everyone at the Participatory Politics Foundation.

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