What’s Congress Up To? How You Can Find Out

Americans rate Congress below most scourges, polls regularly show. But does the public actually know what Congress is doing?

Only a small percentage of legislation makes it to the Senate and House floors, where insomniacs can stay glued to the proceedings on C-SPAN.

800px-United_States_Capitol_west_front_edit2But these days, it’s a lot easier than it used to be to track bills of interest through the legislative process.

The granddaddy of legislative access is named, fittingly, after the guy who created the Library of Congress. The library’s THOMAS system (as in Thomas Jefferson) allows users to research by topic or bill number and find a mostly readable summary of the legislation along with every step in the how-a-bill-becomes-law process, including final votes.

But the Library of Congress is now beta-testing a new website, Congress.gov, that aims to serve up a much more comprehensive platter of legislative information (including profiles of congressional lawmakers) in a format that’s considerably more user-friendly than its old standby. It will eventually incorporate all the information that’s now on THOMAS.gov.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has unveiled a new website that allows the public to follow legislation in the House of Representatives and even sign on as a “citizen cosponsor” of bills and resolutions. “Whether you want to support new legislation like the Kids First Research Act or show support for legislation that has already passed the House, like the Working Families Flexibility Act, you can do so here,” Cantor said.

Moving off of Capitol Hill, there are lots of choices when it comes to figuring out what Congress is up to.

If Vegas is your style, for example, you can get a bill’s odds of passage from GovTrack. The site is run by “civic hacker” Joshua Tauberer, who started it as a hobby and has since written a book called Open Government Data. GovTrack points out that only about 4 percent of the 10,000 measures introduced in each session of Congress make it into law. The odds of passage, based on things like whether a bill’s sponsor chairs a powerful committee, are designed to help people focus on the bills most likely to succeed. With Govtrack you can choose a bill to follow and be emailed updates on its progress.

OpenCongress, funded by the Sunlight Foundation, has the bill information along with news coverage and public comments.

Want to dive even deeper? Here’s a WikiHow primer on how to track legislation and keep tabs on what Congress is doing.

So if you want to know whether the Older Americans Act is headed toward renewal, whether Social Security’s cost-of-living formula is likely to be changed or what resolution is being offered to honor the obscure organization of your choice, it’s all only a few keystrokes away. Thomas Jefferson would love it.

 

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