Mark Gilbert's Blog

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Congressional Time

The inspiration for the "You should totally write that!" series stems from an article I read this past weekend in the Kalamazoo Gazette.  The House passed a resolution that reaffirmed "In God We Trust" as the national motto.  And by "reaffirmed" I mean this is the third such resolution made by the House – the first being in 1956 and the second in 2002.  The Washington Post has the story as I saw it appear in the Gazette.

The thing that really got me going was that they spent 35 minutes debating this topic.  Assuming the full House was in the house, that’s 435 x 35 person-minutes of time, or over 10.5 person-DAYS spent talking about this.  10.5 days.  Do we really believe this is the most important issue right now?  You’d think in an election year, something like, oh, I don’t know, the economy, two wars, even healthcare might take priority.

And that got me thinking.  How much time do our elected officials spend debating a given category of topics in a given day, week, or session?  For example, the Washington Post article above mentioned that the Democrats sponsored 250 "commemorative" bills in Congress last year. (I’m sure the irony of Republican Trent Franks from Arizona sponsoring the motto resolution will not escape you.)  How much time did they spend debating and working through bills like those compared to debating funding bills?  What topic gets the most attention?  What topic gets the least?  Is there a correlation between who controls the House (Democrats or Republicans) if you were to look at the data year over year?

I realize that the floor activities represents only a portion of the time spent on any given bill – officials and staffers have to research the topics (at least I HOPE they do), they have to draft and revise the bills, there’s time spent discussing and polishing the bills in committees, and so on.  However, the time spent on the Floor is generally what Joe Plumber or Mark Programmer can see.  If an elected official wanted to keep their job, you’d think they’d be very conscious of the face they are displaying to the people who put them there.

To get some of these answers, I started poking around the http://House.gov site to see if I could find transcripts (or at least summaries) of the House floor proceedings – and I found them.  Even better, they are available in an XML format, by day:

http://clerk.house.gov/floorsummary/Download.aspx?file=20111102.xml
http://clerk.house.gov/floorsummary/Download.aspx?file=20111103.xml
http://clerk.house.gov/floorsummary/Download.aspx?file=20111104.xml

They don’t go back to the beginning of time, unfortunately – at the time of this writing, January 2011 was not available, but April 2011 was – but they go back far enough that you build a decent history right out of the gate, and then update it with daily pulls.  The other key piece included with these feeds are the timestamps – critical if we’re to calculate total time spent. The specific bills are also included in the text of the individual actions, so there would need to be some work done to extract those, and then categorize them into some logical buckets – the wars, jobs-creation, healthcare, pointless commemorative bills, etc.  My idea is to build an app that pulls down yesterday’s summary, parse it, and then tally up the time spent on each.  I think it would be eye opening to see what our elected officials are really spending their time out.

I then looked to see if there was a similar feed available for the Senate, but wasn’t able to find one that included timestamps of any kind, so unless you watching C-SPAN with a stopwatch, I don’t think this is possible right now.

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November 9, 2011 - Posted by | You should totally write that!

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