Help:How to research U.S. legislation
One of the best resources for starting to research legislation is OpenCongress, a project of Congresspedia's co-sponsor, the Sunlight Foundation. OpenCongress combines official bill information with news coverage, blog buzz, campaign contribution data, and more.
To research a bill, the best way to start is to simply go to www.OpenCongress.org and use the search box in the left-hand sidebar. You can enter either the official name of a bill (like "S.1639") or its title ("A bill to provide for comprehensive immigration reform and for other purposes."). It's common that you might know an approximate or colloquial title of a bill, but not its official name or title -- in this case, you can try typing in combinations of keywords ("immigration," "immigration reform", or other terms such as "health care", "technology", etc.), and you'll likely see returned a variety of different bills, issue areas, news articles, and blog posts. For more search options, visit the dedicated Search page, or the Search Tips page.
Another way to find a noteworthy piece of legislation is to visit the page of most-viewed bills on OpenCongress. Off the main Bills page, you can also sort by bills most in the news, most on blogs, and those that have seen recent action. Besides helping you find an important bill, these unique pages on OpenCongress may illustrate relevant trends in the legislative area about which you're writing -- as might the page of most popular searches on OpenCongress.
On the page of each bill itself (for example, S.1639), here is a summary of the information available: the full text of the bill, its latest actions and status in Congress, its committees and amendments, its sponsors and co-sponsors, news articles referring to that bill, and blog posts referring to that bill. Clicking on the link to all news results will give you a one-stop overview of all online news articles referring to that bill -- these news analyses can be used as citations on SourceWatch and Congresspedia. More specifically, the news sections are often useful for researching the status of a bill in the Congressional process, expert analysis of the bill, and quotes about the bill from Members of Congress. Clicking on the link to all blog results will give you a one-stop overview of all blog posts that refer to that bill -- these blog commentaries can be used to obtain a better sense of the "buzz" surrounding a bill. More specifically, blog results are often useful for researching membership groups that support or oppose a bill, what bloggers in the hometown district of the bill's sponsors think about it, and collaborative public analysis of the bill and its proposed effects.
OpenCongress works to allow anyone to draw connections between the substance of a bill itself and the campaign contributors to its sponsors. Clicking on the name of a bill's sponsor or co-sponsor (for example, Sen. Kennedy (D-MA)) will bring you to the page for that Member of Congress. At the bottom of that Member's page, you can view campaign contributions by industry sector, as collected by the non-profit, non-partisan OpenSecrets.org. Under the photo for each Member is a link back to his or her page on Congresspedia.
OpenCongress offers other pathways to useful information about Congressional legislation. You may find supplementary information about bills on the pages for Senators, Representatives, Committees, Issue Areas, or on our daily Congress Gossip Blog. For more information, please visit How To Use OpenCongress.
Using OpenCongress vs. Thomas (Library of Congress)
- OpenCongress uses the same data as the official Thomas system (see below), but also combines it with record votes and news and blog searches and other "Web 2.0" features that give more information on a piece of legislation. OpenCongress is the preferred source to link to from Congresspedia and SourceWatch, but it only has bills from the 109th (2005-2006) and 110th Congress (2007-2008) at this point, so Thomas links have to be used for previous congresses. Note: standard searches on OpenCongress exclusively return bills from the current 110th Congress, so to access bill from the 109th, use the options on the Search page.
- Thomas, the Library of Congress' legislative information database. The first place to start. Contains bill text, sponsorship, record votes and other actions on the bill.
Important: When linking back from SourceWatch to Thomas you must be careful with the url (webpage address)! The urls generated from searches are not permanent and will not work for other users. To get a permanent link, click on the "Bill Summary & Status" link at the top of a bill page. That url is the best one to link to.
- THOMAS beta, a new, more feature-rich legislative information database (still in beta).
- The Sunlight Foundation wiki page on the Legislative Indexing Vocabulary used by the Congressional Research Service to tag the subject matter of bills.
In addition to containing a host of information about federal legislation, http://maplight.org allows you to see how campaign contributions correlate to legislator voting behavior. In a few short steps, you can see which interest groups took a position on each bill and how the legislators that received money from those groups voted on each bill.
To research a particular federal bill, click the U.S. Congress icon and click on the “Bills” icon. Enter the bill number you are interested in, for example, HR 5684, or key words such as ‘insurance’ or ‘homeland security’ in the search box. From the search results, click on the bill you wish to view to be taken to that particular bill’s landing page. From here, you can see a variety of information about the bill, including a list of the industries that support and oppose the legislation. Each tab in the middle of the bill page allows you to see different information about the bill’s supporters and opponents, who they gave campaign contributions to, and how those legislators voted on the bill.
To view the money-votes analysis, choose the “Votes” tab at the top will give you two sets of information. First, you will see the number of votes. Below, you will see the amount of contributions that legislators voting yes and no received, both from interests supporting and opposing the bill. By clicking on “How Each Legislator Voted” (located directly under the “Votes” tab) you can see the amount each legislator received from interests supporting and opposing the bill. Clicking on the “(details…)” link on the right, will provide a list of how much the congressperson received from each industry supporting and opposing the bill.
Clicking on the “Timeline of Contributions” tab will display a bar graph of campaign contribution information through legislators’ last campaign cycle. The dates of House and Senate votes are represented by flags directly below the bars and above the months. Clicking on the flags will take you to the vote information described in the previous paragraph. Below the bar graph is a list of all the legislators in Congress, and by click on their name, you will be directed to a bar graph showing the contributions the individual received from supporting and opposing interests over a period of time. By clicking on the bars you will be shown which companies/organizations contributed, how much they gave, when they gave, and to whom.
To search by industry, click on the U.S. Congress tab at the top and click on the “Interest Groups” icon. Click on a category from the column on the left and then click on the interest category that will be displayed in the column on the right. Click on a category on the column furthest to the right and a list of the top 10 congressional recipients from that category will be displayed.
To search by legislator, click on the “Legislators” tab at the top, and either enter the name of the congressperson in the search box or click the state on the map to display a list of Representatives and Senators for that state, with the option to limit your search by political party. Clicking on the individual’s name will take you to their page on the MAPLight.org site which displays the top 10 interests funding their campaign. By clicking on the “Top Individuals” tab a list of the specific organizations and the amount they contributed to that congressperson is displayed.