We’ve already established that members of Congress are pretty bad at informing the public via their websites. The good news is that you can find a number of excellent sites for keeping an eye on the U.S. government. Not surprisingly, most of these are provided by third parties, rather than the government itself. To help ReadWriteWeb readers as the election season approaches, we’ve pulled together a list of the best sites for seeing just how the sausage is made. Just remember: What’s been seen can’t be unseen.
POPVOX: Bridging the Public and Congress
Tracking bills through Congress can be complicated, to say the least. Giving elected officials feedback, and making sure it’s heard, is even more so. POPVOX was founded in 2010 as an attempt to help voters and Congress by making it easy to find bills, voice support or opposition to legislation, and share opinions. But don’t look to POPVOX for its opinions – one of the site’s goals is to be free of editorializing.
POPVOX tracks all of the bills in Congress, and how members vote. If you sign up and give POPVOX your information, it will help you track how your representative and senators vote on bills before Congress. You also get to see whether other POPVOX users support or oppose the bills, with handy little pie charts that show support and opposition, as well as how many users have spoken.
The bill summary pages also list organizations that endorse and oppose the bill, as well as the administration’s stance on a bill. Naturally, the site also includes the text of the bill and its status before Congress.
POPVOX is supposed to provide a more effective way to read public sentiment on bills and get feedback on them. If POPVOX takes off, maybe it can counter the influence of paid lobbyists in favor of the public.
While OpenCongress does not avoid editorializing, it’s still a fantastic tool for paying attention to Congress. The site is a project between the Sunlight Foundation and Participatory Politics.
One tool that you’ll find on OpenCongress that’s not available via POPVOX is a way to track your representative and senators specifically. OpenCongress shows how often they vote with their party, their votes and their money trail. OpenCongress even lets you pit legislators against one another by comparing their voting records.
OpenCongress also lets you follow the money trails by industry sector, so you can track things like pro-gun and gun-control spending, how the entertainment industry spends money, and so on. If you want to track specific issues, there’s an index of broader issues as well. This shows “hot bills” by the issue area, key votes, the latest bills and enacted bills.
The committee view has potential, although it looks like this is an underloved section of the site. Several committees have no membership data, though the site promises that “it’s coming soon in August 2009.” Keeping up with Congress isn’t easy, though, and on the whole, the site provides a fantastic resource.
The concept behind Poligraft is simple, but extremely complicated to pull off. Give it the text to an article, press release or post from a blog, and it will give you an “enhanced view” of the people, organizations and their relationships.
Give it the URL to a political story, and it will filter the story for points of influence, campaign donations and individuals in the story. It tries to show where money goes and where it comes from, in relation to any given story. For example, this story from Politico points out when donors and recipients are mentioned in the same story – like Goldman Sachs and James Walsh. It helps give context, for instance, when politicians are talking about organizations that may be giving them or their opponents money.
Follow the Money
Money talks in Congress – loudly. Finding out who’s spending what, and how, can be pretty difficult, especially with the explosion of super PACs. The Sunlight Foundation’s Reporting Group provides a handy site called Follow the Unlimited Money for all super PACs that have raised at least $10,000 since the beginning of 2011.
The OpenSecrets.org site is a treasure trove of information for tracking the influence of money on U.S. politics. The use of big data in tracking government is trendy now, but OpenSecrets.org was well ahead of the curve. The Center for Responsive Politics has been publishing since 1983, and the Web site has been up since 1996.
OpenSecrets.org goes a bit beyond reading the tea leaves of big data. It also does good old-fashioned reporting and finds a lot of information you might otherwise miss. One of my favorite projects on the site is the revolving door, which tracks former members of Congress and staffers, so you can see where they go when they leave Congress. OpenSecrets.org also lets you check the top lobbying firms and see who hires folks who used to work on the Hill. See also the Sunlight Foundation’s lobbying tracker if you’re into paying attention to lobbyists.
There’s much, much more. OpenSecrets.org will help you find out about the finances of members of Congress, see how earmarks are distributed or let you drill down into local contributions.
Want to see what executive orders are coming from the White House, or rules being proposed by federal agencies? Then you’ll want to take a look at the Federal Register. The U.S. government posts notices, proposed rules, rules taking effect and “significant documents” for public inspection.
There’s a lot of information on the site, but it’s not as easy to use or friendly as some of the sites that are provided by organizations like the Sunlight Foundation. You really have to know what you’re looking for here to be able to find out what’s going on. However, the Federal Register does have an API, and code for the site is provided on GitHub, so everything is there for third parties to take on examining and taming the data.
Ever thought about filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request? The folks over at MuckRock have. In fact, they’ve filed more than 1,000 requests and received more than 30,000 pages of government documents. Out of all of those requests, only 273 have been “successfully completed” and 85 have been denied – meaning there’s still some wiggle room for the government to just ignore requests or delay them significantly. Take, for example, this request for FOIA filings in Boston. It’s gone unanswered for nearly two years.
Still, the MuckRock folks are turning up interesting information and showing others how it’s done.
If you know where to look, you can find out much more about what’s going on in government these days – thanks to the series of tubes we call the Internet. But there’s always room for more information and better efforts to put that information in context. Have a favorite open government site? Let us know in the comments. And yes, we know this is U.S.-centric. Think we should try to pull together a list of international open government resources? Let us know.