Re: [govtrack] Reading the bill
- A interview with Matt Taibbi aired Democracy Now on the 27th which
outlines some of the faults with the current congregational system
that has come about in the last few years.
and attached below: an article which got fwd to me a while back
detailing why we really need to have c-span/*metavid* cameras in the
lobbyists restaurants if we wanted to see the full story of law making.
Also in metavid news we should soon be doing live archived broadcasts
of the house and floor. along with a more compatible java ogg theora
player :) Other updates mentioned in the blog:
Joshua, I am still keen to move forward on integrations with govTrak
...is there a list somewhere on the site with senator names & their IDs?
Descending into the ninth circle of Washington Hell.
The Shadow Capitol
by Thomas Frank
You know you're getting close to the spectacular white office building
at 101 Constitution Avenue when you start seeing lobbyists buzzing
around like bees near a hive. With a little practice, the lobbyists are
easy to distinguish from lesser drones: They are the ones who look like
caricatures of prosperous men, dressed in a way that is no doubt meant
to suggest "affluent businessman" but in which no proper businessman in
Chicago or Kansas City would ever, in fact, dress himself. In most of
the United States, male office-wear tends toward the drab; the lobbyist,
by contrast, fancies himself Beau Brummell. He appears to choose each
element of his ensemble for its conspicuous priciness, but to give no
thought to the whole. You can spot him in the field by his perfectly
fitted thousand-dollar suits, usually in blue; his strangely dainty
shoes; his shirts, which are often the kind that come in pink or blue
with white collars and cuffs, the latter of which display cufflinks of
the large and shiny variety; his vivid, shimmering ties, these days
preferably in orange or lavender; his perfect haircut; the tiny flag
attesting to his perfect patriotism on his perfect lapel; his perfect tan.
One of the most arresting sights in Washington, D.C., is when you notice
one of these fussily dressed and pleasant-smelling creatures out of
their element--say, dragging their Tumi luggage down a broken sidewalk
near the bus station in the 100-degree heat. But, here at 101 Con, they
are right at home. They come striding into the Charlie Palmer Steak
restaurant and the air-conditioning is blasting and their teeth are
exactly right and their ties jut gamely from their collars. The gang's
all here, a bunch of real straight shooters, and they extend their hands
to the committee chairman, and all the handsome fellows share a laugh
together as they take their seats among scurrying waiters and huge vases
of cut flowers.
You can offshore nearly any kind of job these days--ship your factory to
Mexico and send your back office to India--but your lobbyists have to
stay in Washington. The rest of the hard, old, face-to-face world may
dissolve, but lobbying remains stubbornly rooted in the necessities of
physical proximity to power and, of course, to tasty eats. At 101
Constitution, both of these can be found in fantastic abundance, and
this has made the building a landmark for our political times, as the
Watergate was for the 1970s and the "little green house" (where
officials sold government favors in the Harding days) was for the 1920s.
101 Con is K Street in a box, a private-sector Pentagon where ten
stories of lobbyists plot their next thrust on behalf of the
life-insurance industry, the mining industry, or the retail hardware
Form follows function, as they say, and 101 Con is admirably suited to
the task of paid persuasion. From its very design, it's apparent that
this building was intended to reel in earmarks the way a steel mill
makes steel or a grain elevator stores wheat. To begin with, 101 Con is
the closest commercial property to the Capitol building, literally just
across a traffic island from the Capitol grounds. This means "members,"
as the men and women of Congress are called, can scoot over and back in
a matter of minutes. The building's upper stories have an astonishing
view of the Capitol dome, a quality exploited by the prominent turret
that juts toward Constitution Avenue. This protuberance is topped by a
rooftop terrace, where fund-raising events can be held against the
striking panorama (rent starts at $10,000 a night, I was told); smaller
balconies on the lower floors permit regular tenants to hold their own
parties with the same backdrop. The tangible value of this view--namely,
that it impresses clients--is often mentioned in news stories. The
intangible value, I imagine, is that it also allows the lobbyists, like
captains of industry in old advertisements, to look out grandly over the
assembly line where their product is manufactured.
The building's ground floor houses the very large and very luxurious
Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant, world-famous dealers in "artisan meats"
and fine wines.
The architects have done their job well. 101 Con is a "trophy-class"
building with rents to prove it. The building hosts fund-raisers or
receptions of one kind or another virtually all the time when Congress
is in session; according to Roll Call, PAC fund-raisers make up fully 25
percent of Charlie Palmer Steak's business. I was told by one restaurant
employee that business had suffered since the Jack Abramoff affair, with
its lurid tales of sushi-crazed legislators selling themselves for
finger-sized bites of raw fish. But, according to the most recent study
conducted by Bloomberg, the restaurant ranked second in popularity among
members to the Caucus Room--a nearby establishment where they've cut out
the middleman: The restaurant itself is owned by lobbyists.
Visitors to Washington who want to see democracy in action traditionally
waste their time at the viewing galleries of the Capitol building,
where--if they are lucky--they might see one or two legislators mumbling
mechanically for the c-span cameras. It is, as everyone knows, a big
letdown--a disillusionment that is cited whenever smart young people
relate how they got to be so wise to the world.
My advice to those visitors: Walk across the street to Charlie Palmer
Steak. This is the place for political spectatorship in the age of
Abramoff, where you can see the questions before the nation actually
being resolved--and can do it over a meal, too, saving yourself a trip
to Applebee's later. Start with the miniature lobster corndogs, $9, a
nod to the deep-fried treats of your red-state youth (but made with
lobster, get it?), and then slyly bribe yourself with a plateful of the
domestic Kobe sirloin, $68. Wash the whole thing down with a half-dozen
Manhattans--you will need them. Look around you while you eat: This is
not the dim, windowless steakhouse of your weekend debauches in Wichita.
It is light; it is open; its polished limestone walls are accented with
Wedgwood blue; a curtain of glass showcases the prominent, prosperous
diners to the sweating world outside. See that pond burbling in the
middle of the restaurant? And the heavy steel ingot they use to prop up
your menu? It's because of classy touches like these that your
congressman is never moving back to your home state, regardless of what
he says about "sharing your values."
Speaking of that congressman of yours: If you're lucky, you will see him
here. Indeed, for the price of that steak you can watch him and his
fellow members make decisions that will affect you for the rest of your
life. And, when they do, you will see that they're making these
decisions in close consultation with non-members--people just like you,
in fact, only with better hair, better clothes, better manners, and a
better job working for far richer and more important companies than yours.
I showed up at Charlie Palmer one evening in July, only minutes, I was
assured, after Tom DeLay had departed. I took up a post with an
advantageous view, fortified myself with a few drinks, and watched the
proceedings unfold. A parade of well-dressed VIPs poured by--top SEC
personnel, important aides, U.S. senators, numerous representatives,
former White House officials, and lobbyists of every stripe--all of them
dressed perfectly and wearing expressions of unflappable satisfaction,
if not outright hilarity. A contented-looking fellow in a vivid yellow
tie was whispered to be the aide who made some congressman a populist. A
man squeezed through the jolly crowd wearing a weathered face and a
shirt embroidered with the words missouri corn growers association. A
party rumored to be a Big Pharma affair roared on in a private dining
room just behind the bar.
Who are these special beings who pay for--and, in some cases, write--the
laws that govern our lives?
To meet them, you must persuade the lobby guards at 101 Con to let you
into the building proper. (No easy feat: There are no public viewing
galleries for the work that's done in these offices.) Take an elevator
to one of the building's upper stories. As you stroll around, you will
notice that the offices are often decorated with those handshake
pictures that are so popular in Washingon--photographic proof of a given
lobbyist's intimacy with politicians and a much more useful tool in
establishing one's professional bona fides than any college degree. You
will also see model airplanes, model motorcycles, and other carefully
arranged bric-a-brac that are normally reminders of leisure-time fun in
the outside world. Here, they are strictly business: reminders of the
industry for which legislative favors are sought. And, always, looming
magnificently in the background, is That View: the bleached dome of the
Now it's on to floor six, where you can visit the offices of Van Scoyoc
Associates. The first time I heard about Van Scoyoc was when a lobbyist
friend insisted to me, in hushed tones, that the people at this
prestigious and respected D.C. firm were specialists in earmarks--those
little pet pork projects that individual legislators like to insert into
bills quietly and at the last minute. I didn't believe him at first.
After all, these days earmarks are the very symbol of misgovernment and
corruption. They are the $200 million "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska; the
bribery price list that Duke Cunningham drew up for the convenience of
his regular customers; the numerous favors Montana Senator Conrad Burns
allegedly did for Abramoff. I know in the abstract that lobbyists are
involved in the process, of course. Earmarks are the juiciest quid that
House members have to sell; the lobbyists are there to furnish the quo,
in the form of wine, steak, cigars, golf weekends, campaign
contributions, and airline tickets to romantic places. But, I wondered,
could it really be so open, so unconcealed? A firm that specializes in
earmarks? That's like putting a sign on your door that says Dealers in
Graft and Boodle.
So naïve am I. According to a recent story in The New York Times, the
buying and selling of earmarks is now so routine that even
municipalities are getting into the act, hiring lobbyists to induce
their own elected officials in Washington to do their jobs. According to
a recent article in CQ Weekly, lobbying accounts in the field of "Budget
and appropriations" ( i.e., earmarks) have tripled since 1998; it is,
today, the single largest category for lobbying activity. The number-one
firm in the field: Van Scoyoc Associates, of 101 Constitution Avenue.
The firm employs a staff of 90 and claims to boast a client list of over
300, including (according to the firm's publicity materials) 50
universities and 20 of the nation's largest corporations. Van Scoyoc
seems particularly proud of its success in the rapidly growing field of
academic earmarks, whereby some research project or institute is funded
directly by Congress instead of through the usual process--you know,
where scholars or bureaucrats look the proposal over and decide whether
it's a good idea or not. One example of how this works, according to
data provided by Public Citizen: From 1998 to 2006, the University of
Alabama paid Van Scoyoc $1.5 million; over that same period, the various
officers of the firm contributed at least $123,500 to Alabama Senator
Richard Shelby (two of the firm's vice presidents are, in fact, former
staffers of Shelby's); and, during those years, Shelby earmarked some
$150 million for the University of Alabama.
Every element of this chain is, of course, formally unconnected to every
other--innocent and wholesome as a newborn babe. But imagine, for a
moment, that this is exactly the racket it appears to be. That is to
say, what if the company's officers were really able to charge clients
$1.5 million for making contributions of $123,500 (a twelvefold
increase) and if the University of Alabama turned $1.5 million in
lobbying fees into $150 million in earmarks (a hundredfold increase) and
if Shelby himself pocketed $123,500 in campaign donations just for
greasing the skids when the call came from 101 Con.
Whenever I have wandered its halls, I have noticed a pattern of
segregation by class. The lobbyists eat at Charlie Palmer, with its
ranks of servile waiters; for everyone else, there is the "Capitol Cafe"
on the exact opposite side of the building, a nearly windowless deli
where the minimalism (its walls are painted cinderblock) comes from
cheapness, not a taste for subtlety. The building is also, bizarrely,
home to a Washington Gas payment center in addition to the lobbyists'
offices, which ensures that poor and sometimes desperate District
residents can be found straying into the wrong part of the building's
lobby. In the elevator, I once commented to a woman that the building
must be a nice place to work. "It's nice if you've got one of those
offices facing the Capitol," she shot back. "Not so nice for the rest of
- Michael Dale wrote:
> Also in metavid news we should soon be doing live archived broadcasts of"live archived"?
> the house and floor.
> along with a more compatible java ogg theora player :)Nice. It doesn't really work with Firefox in Linux right now, so
that'll be great.
> Joshua, I am still keen to move forward on integrations with govTrak ...Yep, see the file people.xml linked from:
> is there a list somewhere on the site listing senator names & their IDs?
But don't open it in your browser -- it's big.
I'm still looking forward to the day I can link from GovTrack to the
videos on Metavid.
- Joshua Tauberer
"Strike up the klezmer and start acting like a man. You're
about to have a truth-mitzvah." -- The Colbert Report
- Antonios Hadjigeorgalis wrote:
> Make Congress read the laws it passes!and Joe Germuska wrote:
> The 'No Legislation Without Representation' Conference
> So, there's "H. Res. 709: Amending the Rules ofThere's also the similar H Res 688, pushed by readthebill.org:
> the House of Representatives to ensure that
> Members have a reasonable amount of time to read
> legislation that will... "
When I have some free time (not likely to be any time soon), I think I
may set up a section on GovTrack highlighting these and the other bills
aiming to improve transparency, with some commentary. I'm hesitant to
create a "GovTrack action center" type thing, since it would be the only
part of the site taking an actual political position, but it seems
OTOH, it would be nice to have that be a part of a larger component of
GovTrack that organizes the positions of advocacy groups, which I've
wanted to do for a long time but haven't gotten to. (More on that next
Joe goes on:
> How are subsequent versions of bills processed?(...snip...)
> How do staffers find the differences between
> More generally, are there things we shouldI'd like to hear more on what people think about that too.
> encourage our legislators to restructure
> government to make GovTrack (and things like it)
> even more able to do what they set out to do?
- Joshua Tauberer
"Strike up the klezmer and start acting like a man. You're
about to have a truth-mitzvah." -- The Colbert Report
- so I found some time to check out the people.xml file ;) ...much nicer
than screen scraping the government website ;) I will be using that xml
file for future people updates :)
so now I have imported gov_track_ids for every person so its easy to
make quick pointers. gov_track ids have been linked like so:
http://metavid.ucsc.edu/gov_track/300037 -> points to Byron Dorgan
I could make a direct pointer to the first page of html search results &
or rss "view" if desired... what I should really do is a have a
function that groups together sequential appearances of a given person
so that speeches show up as a single item...(another thing for the
looking to the future... you might want to check out
relevant video clips could then be embeded in the page alongside the
textual record (so that people would not have to leave your site to view
the clips)...that level of integration would probably require some work
on my end as well ;)
I am running fedora core 6 and the java applet works but I had to
install the sun java jre and point firefox to the correct location
ln -s /opt/jre1.5.0_08/plugin/i386/ns7/libjavaplugin_oji.so /usr/lib/mozilla/plugins/libjavaplugin_oji.so
by "live archived" I mean we will be updating the site database in real
time as things happen on the house and senate floor and linking to that
video... so that a search for person x or text phrase y would include
up-to-the minute appearances/transcripts, as well as letting people tune
into a live high quality ogg theora reusable broadcast... currently we
do everything in post processing after the day is over... the major
hurdle for this technology to be put in place is the on screen analysis
that has to be done to determine if its public domain footage or C-SPAN
proprietary stuff... we are (slowly) getting closer to having this
Things would faster if I had more time...I am currently working full
time for a different academic project which deals with online political
conversation analysis... I will announce it here when it comes online as
I think it may be of interest to some of the people on this list ;)
Joshua Tauberer / GovTrack.us wrote:
> Michael Dale wrote:
> > Also in metavid news we should soon be doing live archived broadcasts of
> > the house and floor.
> "live archived"?
> > along with a more compatible java ogg theora player :)
> Nice. It doesn't really work with Firefox in Linux right now, so
> that'll be great.
> > Joshua, I am still keen to move forward on integrations with govTrak ...
> > is there a list somewhere on the site listing senator names & their IDs?
> Yep, see the file people.xml linked from:
> http://www.govtrack.us/source.xpd <http://www.govtrack.us/source.xpd>
> But don't open it in your browser -- it's big.
> I'm still looking forward to the day I can link from GovTrack to the
> videos on Metavid.
> - Joshua Tauberer
> http://razor.occams.info <http://razor.occams.info>
> "Strike up the klezmer and start acting like a man. You're
> about to have a truth-mitzvah." -- The Colbert Report
> so I found some time to check out the people.xml file ;) ...much nicerGreat.
> than screen scraping the government website ;) I will be using that xml
> file for future people updates :)
> so now I have imported gov_track_ids for every person so its easy toVery nice. Let me know when I should add a link from GovTrack.
> make quick pointers. gov_track ids have been linked like so:
> looking to the future... you might want to check outReally great. I can't wait to do that.
> relevant video clips could then be embeded in the page alongside the
> textual record (so that people would not have to leave your site to view
> the clips)...that level of integration would probably require some work
> on my end as well ;)
> I am running fedora core 6 and the java applet works but I had toI think I've done that (other java things work OK) but I end up with my
> install the sun java jre and point firefox to the correct location
> something like:
> ln -s /opt/jre1.5.0_08/plugin/i386/ns7/libjavaplugin_oji.so
CPU going to 100% and nothing happening.
> I am currently working fullIt's at least of interest to me! (owing to my linguistics life)
> time for a different academic project which deals with online political
> conversation analysis... I will announce it here when it comes online as
> I think it may be of interest to some of the people on this list ;)
- Josh Tauberer
"Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation! Yields
falsehood when preceded by its quotation!" Achilles to
Tortoise (in "Gödel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter)