Submitted by Nirmal on Tue, 2007-03-13

One of the most essential elements of online political activism is that anyone can do it. The more people who are watching their elected representatives and are invested in the political process, the better. Thankfully, with some new (and a few old) tools, citizen watchdogging has gotten easier than ever.

One such tool is Open Congress. As profiled by Download Squad, MyDD, and Ezra Klein, Open Congress is an intuitive system that makes Congressional information accessible to the average person. By providing information on votes, bills, and members of Congress, Open Congress aims to increase transparency in government.

(To track your Congressperson, I strongly recommend the use of feeds whenever possible. Feeds can be read by feed readers, such as Google Reader or Bloglines. A feed reader will help you receive instant updates from feeds and quickly skim through a vast array of information on your Congressional Representatives.)

For the purposes of this tutorial, we'll be tracking Congressman Joe Knollenberg.

Voting History

To follow your member of Congress' voting record in real time, pull up Open Congress and input their name in the search field. In our case, we will enter "Joe Knollenberg" in OpenCongress' search window. This brings us to Knollenberg's OpenCongress page.

If you want to just browse through Knollenberg's recent voting behavior, you can click on "See Full Voting History". For anyone who wants to follow him more rigorously, click either of the orange buttons to access the feed.

From here, you can subscribe in your favorite feed reader and stay updated.

The Washington Post also offers an excellent U.S. Congress Votes Database, but unfortunately doesn't include the neat "Web 2.0" features of Open Congress. Open Congress' emphasis on finding relevant news articles and blog posts for specific bills provide a better understanding of a broader range of legislative proposals.

Sponsored Bills

Open Congress also provides information on the Congressperson's sponsored bills, along with a list of related news articles and blog entries that may give it context.

For example, let's take H.R. 853, which Knollenberg sponsored. The page for H.R. 853 returns blog posts critical of the bill, which may be useful to you in understanding the bill and composing your own blog entries.

Voting Record on "Major" Bills

Open Congress also offers a "Most Viewed Bills" section, which is roughly analogous to the most contentious or discussed bills of the past week. This is one of the best features of the website because it allows the user to identify which legislation is comparatively "important."

Let's take a look at how Knollenberg voted on the Employee Free Choice Act. Click "See Full Voting History," and then "Details."

You can search for your Congressperson's vote with the Ctrl+F key combination in most browsers.

Tracking Recent News with Google News

Depending on how closely you need to watch your Congressperson, you may want to keep track of every single news item that mentions them. This is very easy to do with Google News or Yahoo! News.

For Congressmen that use nicknames, make sure to search for both terms. In this case, we want to use the search term "Joe Knollenberg" OR "Joseph Knollenberg"

To catch every article as it appears, select "Sort by date." This is necessary even if you want to use a feed to track articles as they appear.

If you want to monitor news articles on a regular basis, use a feed or sign up for e-mail alerts.

Yahoo! News essentially works the same way. Yahoo's feeds are better (they don't have an annoying refresh problem that Google's have), but they don't seem to "catch" the wide range of news articles that Google does.

Finding Recent Blog Posts with Technorati

Blog posts can offer unique observations or opinions that are not mentioned in news articles. The mother of all blog search engines, Technorati, will return blog posts about a search term in reverse chronological order.

Again, the search term is "Joe Knollenberg" OR "Joseph Knollenberg"

You can browse the results like with the news search, but if you're doing this on a regular basis you should subscribe to the feed.

Tracking Campaign Contributions

Poking around campaign contributions can offer some of the best ammo for blog posts on elected officials. At the national level, Open Secrets and Political Money Line are both easy to use and self-explanatory. Simply input the name of the elected official or donor and search.

For more help, the Sunlight Foundation has also put together a comprehensive tutorial on how to use Open Secrets.

The Revolving Door

Open Secrets' Revolving Door helps identify potential conflicts of interest when Congressional staffers go to work in private industry or vice versa. The "Revolving Door" directory of members of Congress is available here.

Removed Information

In many cases, elected officials' own websites serve as fantastic sources of information for blog posts.

In cases where sensitive information is removed from their websites, the Wayback Machine can be used to access this deleted information. Last election cycle, the Wayback Machine was used to show that Mike Rogers partied at Mark Foley's house.

Capitol Footage

Unfortunately, there is still no easy way to obtain committee or floor footage online, other than through live Realplayer streams or a TV Tuner Card in your computer. Now that C-SPAN has relaxed its copyright policy, that should slowly start to change.

Right now, floor footage can be streamed live from the C-SPAN website. Committee footage can currently be streamed live from C-SPAN is supposedly planning on expanding to expand access to committee hearings.

Ideology, Interest Group Rankings, and Other Information

You may find these other resources useful in your watchdogging quest:

Project Vote Smart - A searchable database of elected officials and candidates that includes interest group ratings, voting records, and other information.

On The Issues - Determines positions of candidates and elected officials on key issues using voting records, newspapers, speeches, press releases, and the Internet.

Progressive Punch - A non-partisan searchable database that details how progressive members of Congress are.


Ultimately, online watchdogging is about bringing accountability to the electoral process. In particular, information can be found and spread without the involvement of the mainstream media. More informed voters can educate their peers and make better decisions, strengthening our democracy.


Another resource

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 2007-03-20 22:31.

There's also Congresspedia, by SourceWatch. Since it's a wiki, you could post the major things you uncover about a rep.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 2007-03-20 23:13.

The Technorati link is wrong. Should be