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Archive for the ‘About WashingtonWatch.com’ Category

That is Some Subject: Line

Monday, November 7th, 2011

You can tell sometimes that WashingtonWatch.com is a nights-and-weekends project. The latest clue is the Subject: line from this morning’s email: “How Will Congress Pay for Tax Relieving Tax Burden?” That’s inartful at best.

In sorting through various short phrasings for a fairly complicated idea, we seem to have concluded with the one that says “tax” one too many times. Sometimes the weekend has higher priorities than perfecting a Subject: line!

If you still want to read the weekly email newsletter, it’s free—and you’re getting your money’s worth! Subscribe here.

Voila! New Laws!

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Wouldn’t you like to know what laws Congress has passed? Well, now there’s a place to see them!

The “New Laws” link on the “Bills” tab at the homepage. The bills are listed in order of their interest to you. The pages with the most activity are at the top.

Hopefully, this information improves your access to what Congress is up to!

(You can still see earmarks, though the earmark data was never complete. The “New Laws” link takes the place of the “Earmarks” link because earmarks are pretty well suppressed for the time being…)

Podcast on WashingtonWatch.com/NTUF BillTally Collaboration

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

I was pleased to be invited to do a podcast with the folks at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation about the addition of their BillTally data to our site. You can now learn much more about the costs of the bills in Congress, thanks to NTUF’s work.

You can give a listen to the podcast a couple of different ways:

On the NTU’s “Government Bytes” blog.

And on iTunes.

Or you can check it out right here:

New! More Cost Data and Better Debt Insight

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

We’re delighted today to announce the roll-out of a new feature on WashingtonWatch.com—actually, two new features. Both are designed to inform you better about what’s going on in Washington, D.C.

First, we’re adding lots of new cost data for the bills in Congress.

The folks at the National Taxpayers Union Foundation do cost estimates for many of the bills in Congress through their BillTally program. They have generously offered this information to us so we can share it with you. Many more bills now have cost estimates associated with them, so you can get a better sense of the dollar size and significance of the bills in Congress. (Here’s NTUF’s announcement.)

On our bill pages, you’ll see that we now identify the source of the cost estimates we use. Many still come from the Congressional Budget Office—Congress’ official budget, spending, and economics estimator—but now we have the National Taxpayers Union Foundation and a few other sources specified, such as congressional committee reports, which sometimes have spending information in them.

Second, we’ve added national debt figures to help you understand better how the bills in Congress fit into the overall budget picture.

On each bill with a cost estimate, you’ll also see how the bill affects the national debt. Many bills have little or no cost, and they don’t have any effect on the national debt. Many other bills are straight spending bills and they increase the national debt by as much as they spend. But some bills have tax and revenue measures in them that reduce their effect on debt or that bring down the national debt. (Bills can “cost” money in our main calculation while reducing the national debt because taxes “cost” taxpayers money while lowering debt.) Take a look at our “about” page for more on our cost calculations and what they mean.

We hope that this helps you judge what’s important in Congress. We appreciate the work of the National Taxpayers Union Foundation for making this information available to us. We hope you’ll pass the word to others about this resource so more Americans can get a handle on what is happening in Washington, D.C.

Our Mistake

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

The “cost” information we display with bills is a product of taking spending numbers and boiling them down through a “net present value” calculation. That’s essentially the amount you’d have to put in the bank today to fund spending in the future. Thanks to the miracle of compound interest, future spending is cheaper—$100 in spending next year is only about $95.24 today, if you put it in a bank paying a 5% interest rate. (For more, see our “about” page).

Last week, when updating the interest rate figure, we moved the decimal point to the left. Rather than using an interest rate of 4.97% (last week’s AAA corporate bond rate), we used 49.7%. This caused future spending to be dramatically discounted, and it caused us to report in our weekly email, for example, that the cost of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2012 is about $4,400 per U.S. family. In fact, it’s about $6,200, as we reported this week. (Fiscal 2012 spending is a year off, on average, so it is discounted by one year.)

We apologize for the error, and we’re sorry to report to those of you prioritizing deficits that federal spending on the Department of Defense is that much higher…

WashingtonWatch.com Fumbles!

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

Well, we’ve made a fine mess of things. At least two different mistakes have some of our users rightly frustrated.

At the end of every Congress, the bills that were introduced in that Congress die. And at the end of each Congress, we “mothball” those bills, so that the new bills get the attention they should.

With all the conversation on some of the bills, we realized that people would want a place to continue meeting and talking. So we created petitions.

sign_petitionPetitions are pages that our users can create to focus on a particular issue—veterans issues, unemployment, and anything else. When you create a petition, you can create an association between the bills on your issue and the petition, so that anyone coming to a bill can find your petition! More people can get together on a petition, and a petition never dies…

A few weeks after we finally got petitions up and running—it took longer than we wanted—we put notices on many of the most popular bills about the fact that they would soon go away. (Months into the new 112th Congress, we were still displaying bills from the 111th. Kinda foolish.)

But we didn’t put notices on all the bills. We missed Public Law 111-192, for example. There was a lot of conversation going on there. Or H.R. 4183. We blogged about the fact that dead bills from the 111th Congress were going to go away, but that didn’t reach everyone, obviously.

Now here’s the big flub: When we mothball bills, there is supposed to be a message explaining what happened, in red, right at the top of the bill. Due to a simple oversight—we only do this once every two years, after all—that message didn’t go up. The result was that lots of people saw their conversations just cut off, with no explanation.

That was a big goof. We were doing our best to make the site better than ever. And now we’re fielding requests to delete accounts.

Of course, we’re honoring those requests. But we’d feel a lot better if we saw people channeling their frustration in a positive direction by creating petitions! Let those conversations continue!

We’re always learning lessons, and we’ve done so here. Our apologies go to the people we’ve frustrated. Our thanks go to the folks who have shown some flexibility and jumped from some of the mothballed bills to new ones (current popular bills: H.R. 589 and H.R. 812). We’ll be excited to see a leader from these conversations create a petition for people to use. Who that will be is up to you.

Announcing: Petitions!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

sign_petitionWe’ve added a new feature that we hope will give you a better way to organize around the issues you care about: Petitions!

Bills come and bills go. Petitions are a way for you to draw people together around issues that matter to you, and to work with new friends from across the country!

When you go to our “Create a Petition” page, you decide what the issue is. Give your petition a catchy name. Give people a short summary of what it’s about—and much more detail if you want.

Then you can associate all the relevant bills in Congress with your petition. When you do, you’ll bring people together to discuss the issues and to collaborate with you.

Every petition has full commenting so people can socialize, share news, and plan strategy.

Take a look at the petitions homepage. You can see the petitions with the most activity, the newest petitions, and the petitions with the most people signed on. Look around. See who is doing what.

If you are dedicated to a cause and have the knowledge to back it up, start a petition of your own!

As a petition creator, you can add new bills and change whether petition supporters should support, oppose, or “keep an eye on” the relevant bills in Congress. You can edit the wiki article you create about the petition. You can even delegate your administrative authority to people you know and trust.

There’s one thing our petition feature doesn’t do: It doesn’t send standardized messages to Congress. Our experience is that Congress ignores mass communications—signing onto a petition is easy, and they know it.

So it’s up to you and your fellow petitioners to come up with tailored strategies and personalized communications you can take to Congress.

Show that you’re engaged. Show that you’ll follow up. This is how you’ll have influence in Washington, D.C. You can organize to create that influence on our petitions page.

We hope this feature will improve your experience with our site, and help you work with others to get a little more control over your government in Washington, D.C.

If you don’t already have an account, create an account and log in now to sign a petition or start a petition of your own!

Library of Congress Shout-Out to WashingtonWatch.com

Monday, January 24th, 2011

THOMAS_Law_Library_of_CongressThe In Custodia Legis blog produced by the law librarians of Congress has a nice little shout-out to WashingtonWatch.com in a recent post titled, “THOMAS off of THOMAS.”

THOMAS is the legislative database that the Library of Congress manages. It’s a terrific resource for people who are familiar with the site and the legislative process. We use data collected from THOMAS, and a few other places, to populate this site.

The post talks about a number of different sites that use data from THOMAS to spread knowledge about goings-on in Congress. It’s nice to see folks in the Library of Congress recognize that there are lots of different ways to present and use legislative data. Lots of different sites—including WashingtonWatch.com—can help propagate information about our national legislature out across the land. So we return the shout-out!

The post asks what we would like to see added to THOMAS. Better ways to access THOMAS data is our top-most desire. We currently “scrape” data from the Web pages of the THOMAS system. That is, we download THOMAS pages, then run a computer program that picks out the key information and puts it into our database in a useful form. It would be great to get the data directly, formatted in an organized way. This would save time and prevent errors that creep in through the scraping process.

I’ll have more to say on how data can be made more transparent in the future. Suffice it to say now, thanks THOMAS!

There’s a New Congress—But What’s With All These Bills?

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

Post_No_BillsIf you’re paying close attention, you still see thousands of bills from the recently past 111th Congress here on WashingtonWatch.com. Well, we’re leaving them there for the time being so that conversations on some of the bills can continue. Before too long, we’ll mothball those pages, which will cut off commenting, voting, and such (though the pages will still be there).

Before we do that, we’re going to add a cool new feature to the site that allows these conversations to continue. What is it? Not telling yet! But it should be pretty cool.

If you want to see the bills from the new 112th Congress, take a look at the bills under the “Newest” tab on the home page. There’s a few hundred bills in play at this point. We blogged about some of them here.

Also, as we noted in a recent post, we’ve changed our policy about “symbolic” legislation. In the past, we weeded out bills that don’t affect anyone’s rights, or government spending, or international affairs. Seeing the symbolic actions Congress takes opens another window onto our national legislature, for good or bad. So at the beginning of this Congress we made a new policy to display all bills: substantive, symbolic, and organizational. It might confuse or annoy a few folks to see these bills, but that’s the full picture of what Congress is up to.

So that’s what’s up with all these bills!

Honoring Lives Lost in Tucson, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Other Injured, and the Heroes—How We Treat Symbolic Legislation

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Gabrielle-GiffordsThe latest news has Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) making progress in her fight to survive and overcome the injuries she sustained when a gunman attacked a community meeting she convened last weekend. (The New York Daily News story at the link above also has a chilling string of 9-11 calls—it’s a little too much for this site, but you can go there to hear it.)

Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed H. Res. 32, to express its sense with respect to the shooting. It honors all the victims, but especially Rep. Giffords, and the heroes who did the right thing under extreme duress. To read the text, click on the link to the bill, scroll down to the “Learn More” box, and click on “Read the Bill.”

WashingtonWatch.com joins the House—and so many across the nation—in expressing our sympathy for the injured and condolences to the families of the dead. Such a terrible event.

H. Res. 32 is what we would consider “symbolic” legislation. It doesn’t affect anyone’s rights, government spending, or international affairs. And until the beginning of this Congress, we generally didn’t display such bills on this site. All those bills to rename post offices… We’re all about the rules that affect your life.

But, of course, events like the shooting affect your life, too. And seeing the symbolic actions Congress takes opens another window onto our national legislature, for good or bad. So at the beginning of this Congress we made a new policy to display all bills: substantive, symbolic, and organizational.

To illustrate, here are some of the other such bills introduced yesterday:

  • H. Res. 33, Electing Members to certain standing committees of the House of Representatives;
  • H. Res. 34, Expressing condolences to and solidarity with the people of the Commonwealth of Australia as they struggle against deadly floods that began on December 24, 2010;
  • H. Res. 35, Recognizing the anniversary of the tragic earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010, honoring those who lost their lives, and expressing continued solidarity with the Haitian people; and
  • H. Res. 36, Recognizing the significance of Black History Month

These don’t affect you in a direct way, but they affect the way the House runs, and they send messages from the national legislature to our friends in foreign countries and to important communities in the United States.

The signal Congress sent yesterday, and which we join today, is to wish the best to Representative Giffords and all the victims of this tragedy. We’ll hope to see her back in Washington, D.C., before too long, voting on all the bills that reach the House floor, substantive and symbolic.

The current vote on H. Res. 32 is below. Click to vote, comment, learn more, or edit the wiki article on the bill.