Keeping Up With Those Little Rascals in Congress: A User’s Guide

Speaking of American exceptionalism, are you interested in tracking what the US legislature is up to? Good, because I got a request for this post, so here we go!

While it’s great to rely on action items from sites and organisations you follow and trust to alert you to key upcoming legislation, there’s a lot of stuff that happens in Congress that isn’t widely discussed, even though it may be of great importance. There are also many things that die in committee for lack of support that might stand a fighting chance if members of the public knew about them and were taking action; why rely on MoveOn or NARAL to write your action items when you can do it yourself? (Incidentally, if you are muzzy on the process of how a bill becomes a law in the first place, here is a quickie overview you may find helpful.)

I follow a fair number of political sites, to keep up on what’s happening both on a Federal and state level in terms of policy here in the United States; for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on Federal stuff because I think it’s more widely applicable to the readership. In addition to following sites, I also like to go straight to the source. While it’s always great to read interpretation of activity in Congress, reviewing the original source material provides information and context that wouldn’t otherwise be available. There are a lot of resources you can use to find out what’s going on in Congress, and I thought I would list some of them here for those who are interested in tracking pending Federal legislation, but not really sure how to go about it.

THOMAS provides calendars of what’s on the House and Senate floor, in addition to allowing you to search legislation by title, number, and keyword. Full bill text and summaries are available. You can also look up voting records, something very handy for finding out how Senators and Representatives are voting. There are a lot of different search parameters you can use to narrow down information in a way that’s meaningful for you, whether you want to see everything John Boehner has ever done or find every piece of pending legislation relating to bananas.

The House and Senate both maintain their own websites, which include calendars, information about committees, and contact information for individual members of Congress. There are handy dandy things like this table of active legislation in the Senate (cross-referenced with the House). Interested in tracking nominations and confirmation hearings? You can do that too. For people in the United States, these sites also allow you to find out your representative is, and for everybody, you can use the House and Senate sites to find out who belongs to which committees and caucuses.

You can also track pending events on independent sites. I read GovTrack.us pretty regularly along with Project Vote Smart. PVS has tons of biographical information, including ratings from numerous organisations, allowing you to learn more about the background of current members of Congress as well as candidates. The League of Women Voters is another superb resource that also provides referrals to information about elections in individual states. The American Civil Liberties Union is another great resource for information about pending and highly relevant legislation.

Want to play ‘follow the money,’ one of my favourite games in politics? Open Secrets tracks campaign donations large and small, and provides tons of data and statistics you can use. It also contains lots of helpful and interesting information about lobbyists. You can pull data from here if you’re interested in challenging voting records and asking uncomfortable questions about what legislation is being supported and why.

I’m not going to leave you completely hanging out to dry when it comes to tracking legislative activity on a state by state basis! Each state has its own [two letter state abbreviation].gov site (ca.gov for California, vt.gov for Vermont, etc), which you can use as a jumping off point to find information on what state legislatures are up to. However, the availability and accessibility of that information is highly variable. Some states have committed to making it easy to search and explore. Others have not. If a state you’re interested in happens to fall along the ‘not’ line of things, you might consider writing them and suggesting that they modernise their website to make it more useful.

Interacting directly with members of Congress about things you care about, whether or not you live in the United States, is highly recommended. If you are a US resident, it’s best to contact your own representatives, whether you’re asking them to vote a particular way, to sponsor a piece of legislation in trouble, or to address an issue you think is important.

If you’re outside the United States, I would recommend targeting your communications differently. Go either for someone who is on a committee considering a piece of legislation, or who is listed as a sponsor. You can find this information on the bill summary information at THOMAS. Stress that while you are not in the US, the actions taken in Congress affect the image of the United States and determine whether you will visit as a tourist, where in the United States you will choose to travel, and whether you will buy products from US companies.

If you’re interested in contacting a member of Congress, there is a hierarchy of importance when it comes to how to make that contact. While all contacts are counted and recorded, some are weighed more than others. I wish I could say it wasn’t so, but the method you use to contact really does matter.

Phone calls are considered the most important. If you don’t want to contact a representative’s DC office, you can phone a local district office and the staff there will forward the information. If you can’t call, write a letter. If you can’t write a letter, email.

A lot of sites provide you with the option of emailing form letters to representatives about key issues. I would really strongly recommend taking the information from those action items and calling, writing a personalised letter, or writing a personal email if you can. While these form letter ‘sign your name and click the button’ things are useful, a personal contact means more.

I hope that some of you find this primer for tracking Congressional activities useful, and that it wasn’t too boring for those of you who already know this stuff!


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