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Apr 29, 2009
The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization with the mission of using the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to us. See Party Time and Fifty-State Project. Follow them on Twitter.

They have just awarded prizes in their first Apps for American Government Mashup Contest and the winners are pretty cool. (A “mashup,” by the way, is a procedure that combines web-based resources to provide additional, new, or value-added services.)

Filibusted (Grand Prize, $15,000)
Filibusters are the bugaboo of the current Senate, since 60 votes are required to impose a time limit on a debate (cloture) and get on with the vote, and the forces mostly favoring Obama’s agenda currently have only 58 votes, 59 if Al Franken ever gets seated. This site aggregates information from GovTrack.us and Sunlight Labs, another service of the Sunlight Foundation, to bring us news of fresh filibustering, naming the senators who are bottlenecking legislation. Visit the site for updates and to read their blog or, more conveniently, follow them on Twitter.

Legistalker (Second Price, $5,000)
This project was created specially for the contest by Forum One Communications, and aggregates data from Twitter, YouTube, Capitol Words (another Sunlight Foundation project), and hundreds of news sources. Click a button to see the latest Tweets and uploaded YouTube videos generated by U.S. legislators, or news items regarding them. Set up your own “"Stalk List” to zero in on the legislators you want to follow.

Hello, Congress (Third Prize, shared)
A somewhat bewildering site, ostensibly created to serve congressional delegations. Each senator and representative has their own page where they and their staff can request research, search a briefing room of over 2000 documents and talking points, and track the priorities of their constituents. Constituents, meanwhile, sign up at something called White House 2, where they can endorse or oppose various policies. Their positions are then aggregated for their legislators on the legislators’ Hello, Congress, pages. Clever! And some interesting numbers, which lead one to believe the site has been peopled, so far, by the usual suspects: hotheads and ideologues. If the general public eventually embrace it, it could become a useful tool for our legislators.

Know Thy Congressman (KTC) (Third Prize, shared)
Get web savvy fast and impress your friends. KTC is an implementation of bookmarklets, handy little bits of code that can automate all sorts of things inside your Web browser. The KTC bookmarklet will look up useful information regarding legislators when you come across their name on a web page. Simply highlight the name, click the KTC bookmarklet (which the site will show you how to easily install), and voilá, you will see a handy insert providing a raft of useful and juicy data on the legislator (including their primary donors). Use it with some regularity, and you will find yourself learning a lot about our gang in Washington.

Yeas and Nays (Third Prize, shared)
Whereas KTC was a snap to install (a quick drag-and-drop), Yeas and Nays, a mashup that allows you to call one of your congressional representatives from any web page, requires a bit more dedication. You need the Firefox browser (definitely worth the switch from Internet Explorer), then you will install Greasemonkey, a Firefox add-in that allows you to run what are called user scripts, one of which is Yeas and Nays from ShiftSpace. The Yeas and Nays link takes you through these steps quite painlessly. Once installed, the little applet allows you to call your congressional rep from any web page (as well as providing a number of other web page add-on capabilities), provides talking points to help you express your opinion regarding the issue at hand, and, at your option, will record your call and make it available to other visitors to that page (who have ShiftSpace installed). Web Two Point Wow!

e-Paper Trail (Third Prize, shared)
Subtitled “Watch over your representatives,” e-Paper Trail provides a three-way look at Congressional activity. “Bills and Resolutions” graphically displays Democratic/Republican splits on recent House and Senate votes, and shows how your representatives and senators voted. “From the Floor” provides recent statements/speeches presented by your congressional representatives. “Head to Head” compares the voting history of any two House members of your choice. Text alerts are available for your mobile phone. These old eyes wonder, however, why the designers of this web site decided on such light, thin headline and body text.
These mashups illustrate how far and how fast Internet web site development is progressing. Combined, they provide quick and timely access to the D.C. goings-on that so vitally affect our interests. Kudos to Sunlight Foundation for sponsoring this contest, and to all the participants.
tags: Reference

Meet the In-Crowd—Your 111th Congress

Jan 09, 2009
Except for a couple of senatorial seats and one in the House, the 111th Congress is pretty much nailed down. And the Congressional Research Service has given us an up-close-and-personal look at the boys and girls who will be haunting our dreams for the next two years. These are the cats Obama will be herding through the first half—the traditionally more effective half—of his administration. Here are a few fast facts for cocktail chatter at your inaugural bash:1

  • House Democrats outnumber the Republicans 262 to 178—a comfortable majority.
  • Not so in the Senate, where Dems count on the two Independents who caucus with them to raise their majority to 57 to 41, still three short of the filibuster-busting 60. And Kennedy and Burris (or whoever) together won’t change that.
  • Your average senator is six years older than your average House member (63 to 57). The average age of senators has gone up 1.5 years over each of the past two congresses; the average age of representatives has gone up one year.
  • The House folk have been there on average for 11 years and the senators for 12.9.
  • Women have crashed through the glass ceiling in record numbers this time around, with 78 in the House (18%) and 17 in the Senate (17%). They are still radically underrepresented.
  • However, that is better than the African-American representation, with 41 in the House (all Democrats!) and (as of January 6) not one in the Senate.
  • Former occupations of members of the 111th Congress include five Peace Corps volunteers, one territorial first lady, a talk show host, five accountants, an astronaut, three organic farmers, a river boat captain, and 225 lawyers.
  • Ninety-five percent of our lawmakers have college degrees, but the only PhDs (23 of them) are in the House.
  • The one Native American in the 111th Congress, serving in the House, is a Republican. Go figure.
And gosh, we wish them all just the very best of luck. The clock is ticking and the honeymoon is over in 60 days.
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1 Members of the 111th Congress: A Profile, by Mildred Amer and Jennifer E. Manning, from OpenCRS, December 31, 2008, accessed January 6, 2009
tags: Reference

...And Pulled Out a Plum

Nov 21, 2008
Speaking of transparency in government (which we were speaking of only yesterday in The See-Through Government), the Government Printing Office provides a great online resource containing way more information than you will ever need on who’s who in appointed (non-competitive) positions in the Executive and Legislative branches and various independent agencies of the federal government—the “plums,” in other words.

As we noted a few days ago, in Your Tax Dollars At Work, there are over 2.7 million federal employees. Many of them are civil servants in competitive positions, of course, but this resource is useful in finding out who is really running things, or disrupting them every four years, depending on your point of view.

Pay codes are noted, and you can check the 2009 Government Pay Schedule for help in decoding them. Bookmark for future reference. Also of great value is The Prune Book, which contains detailed job descriptions of agency heads and major subordinates.

Now, let’s see if Obama includes email addresses in the next edition.
tags: Reference

StateScape

Jul 16, 2008
This fee-based site nevertheless provides a wealth of free information on state legislative activity:

  • Use BillFinder to find any state or federal bill by keyword or bill number
  • Find links to state legislature home pages, bill lookup pages, and member lists for each chamber
  • Find information on governors, budgets, and the legislative process
  • Check the “Resource” link for other free services
Keep an eye on legislative activity in your state and across states.

We also like Stateline.org as a source for free information regarding the states (even if it incorrectly lists my governor's term expiration date). It is funded by the Pew Center on the States.
tags: Reference

Visit StateScape

The Numbers Game

Jul 07, 2008
This is just a very useful and informative 463 pages full of numbers, assembled biennially by the American Association of Retired Persons (which seems now to be referring to itself, at least online, only by its acronym, AARP). This 2008 edition of the “State Handbook of Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Indicators” provides “useful data on such topics as population, poverty rates, per capita state personal income, state and local revenues, expenditures, tax rates, and property tax relief programs. Gender and age comparisons are provided for some of the data.” The report facilitates state-national comparisons by setting some data numbers side by side. It also shows changes in some numbers over a period of a decade.

Among the items I found of interest:

  • The national poverty rate increased 12.9% between 1996 and 2006, and stands at 13.3% of the population in 2006. (The poverty threshold for a family of four with two children in 2007 was $21,0271.)
  • The highest poverty rate increase in any demographic group was for males 75 and over (25.1% increase); the second highest was for males age 18-64 (17.4% increase).
  • The largest impoverished demographic group in America were females under 18 (18.5%), followed closely by males under 18 (18.2%) We visit poverty most heavily upon those whose futures are most direly affected by it. No child—in America or throughout the world—should live in poverty, fear, hunger, disease, or ignorance.
  • The poverty rate in my state of Vermont increased only 6.4% during the period in which the nation's increased 12.9%; and only 10.3% live in poverty in Vermont, compared to the national number of 13.3%. Not much, however, to crow about.
  • And we're growing older. Though the number of males in Vermont increased 6.5% from 1996 to 2006, the number of males over 75 increased 30.2% and the number under 18 decreased 8.6%. Female numbers were comparable.
  • I was surprised to learn that only 39% of our general revenues in 2005 came from income, sales, and property taxes combined, which I would have thought accounted for the lion's share of our revenues. The largest piece (27%) came from federal aid, a proportion unchanged since 1995.
Find links to the three other most recent AARP handbooks at the link below, as well as the link to this one.
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1 U.S. Census Bureau at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/threshld/thresh07.html. Accessed June 29, 2008.
tags: Reference

Download the Handbook

Reference: Congress

Jun 19, 2008
Basic information regarding U.S. representatives and senators, including contact information, website, bios, etc., brought to you by GPOAccess, a service of the Government Printing Office.
tags: Reference

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