Agora & Polis

How To Play Find-the-bill, And Lose


L. Rhodes

At the end of a page I wrote earlier this week to explain my intentions for @ContactCongress, I included the following disclaimer to cover for a particular class of inaccuracies that are almost sure to crop up from time to time:

From previous experience, I know that there are a couple of contingencies that complicate accurate reporting. One is that news outlets often omit useful information when they cover Congressional legislation -- like the name and number of the bills on which they're reporting.

When I wrote that, the account had already suffered from one such lapse. I was still getting all of my processes in place when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced a deal to vote on two plans, one Republican and one Democrat, to reopen the government. Because the shutdown affects a broad range of government services, including some -- like SNAP benefits, housing assistance, and environmental monitoring -- that bear directly on the central issues covered by @ContactCongress, and because the bone of contention driving the shutdown was a fight over the fate of asylum seekers, I decided to go ahead and leap into the fray.

There was only one problem: What were the specific measures McConnell and Schumer would bring to the floor? There are several ways to find out. Normally, I might have started with official Congressional outlets, but there's often a delay between the introduction of a bill and its appearance on government sites. There are also sites, like GovTrack, that keep tabs on legislation, but they mostly work by scraping government databases, and so are subject to the same delays. The news orgs, on the other hand, were already reporting on the deal. Maybe I'd get lucky and some kind-hearted reporter would have dropped a name or reference number. At the very least, they might give me some clue, like a sponsor, on which to build a search.

And maybe some article somewhere did all of that and more, but not the articles I read. Try, for example, this one from the New York Times. Or this one from CBS News. Or this one from the US version of The Guardian. It's not entirely fair to single out those outlets because omitting such identifiers seems to be standard practice among journalists. Nowhere could I find a bill name or a Congressional reference number.

It may be that none of that information was yet available to the press. After all, the deal had just been made, and the Senate leaders may not have been particularly forthcoming. All the same, this is a problem I've run into time and time again. Many years ago, I was taught to write newspapers articles on the principle of the inverted pyramid, with the most important information bunched at the top and more incidental context spread toward the bottom. By that standard, the identifiers that would empower readers to look up the contents of proposed legislation must not be considered important. I can't fathom why not.

This is, of course, wildly frustrating to someone like me, who is making a concerted effort to become more civically engaged, but I think it has a more far-ranging effect in how we understand political news. Without that information, news about federal legislation reads like something that is happening to us, rather than something in which we, as members of a democracy, can participate. The name and number of a bill going through Congress is a handle the reader can grasp. Having it in hand allows us to express ourselves more articulately to our Congress members. It throws sunshine on Congress by enabling us to look up the contents of pending legislation. The government provides a number of resources that allow citizens to see what their legislators are doing, but those resources are less useful than they could be for want of a ready handle.

The way my search ended illustrates that point. Having come up short with the press, I turned to government resources. If this had been a House vote, I could have checked the daily leader or weekly list of bills to be considered. The House is actually great about updating these, but after several years of watching Congressional legislation, I have yet to find an equivalent resource for the Senate. There's the Senate daily calendar, of course, but it's slow to update, and votes that are scheduled on short notice often don't make it onto the list in time for publication.

Next stop was the Majority Leader's site. The official pages of individual Congress members serve as clearing houses for their public statements (or, at least, the statements they want to own), and yes, Leader McConnell had made and posted several rather lengthy statements about the shutdown vote. What he had not included were any name or reference numbers, so that was a bust. Ditto for Schumer's page. I even checked House Speaker Pelosi's site, and still came up empty-handed.

Okay, what about congress.gov? That, without a doubt, is the government site I visit most. Every bill introduced into Congress is posted thereā€¦ eventually. As with the official floor calendars for each chamber, there's typically a delay, somewhere between 24 and 48 hours, before changes are reflected in that database. But even if the bills I had in mind were there on Wednesday night, I was effectively looking for two needles in a haystack. The two best search terms for finding a specific bill -- name and reference number -- were the very information I was trying to find. If the names contained some obvious clue, then I could maybe find them by limiting my search to Senate bills in the 116th session, ordering by date of introduction, then browsing through until I found them. But in the actual event, I came up with nothing. My single biggest clue was that the Democrat's bill had already passed the House, which let me narrow my search even more. On that basis, I narrowed the possibilities to a handful of bills, then made my best guess, H.R. 21, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019.

Which, was, as it turns out, wrong. The bill I actually wanted was H.R. 268, the Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2019. And though I didn't know it, that was actually the only bill I wanted. The deal McConnell and Schumer had struck was to vote on two amendments to that bill, S. Amdt 5 and S. Amdt 6. As far as I can tell, both were added to congress.gov on Thursday, but even if they had been there on Wednesday, I doubt I could have found them, since both were unhelpfully titled "Of a perfecting nature," and anyway, I didn't know I was looking for amendments.

The result is that, in two posts that I have since deleted as inaccurate, I named the wrong bill, and gave the mistaken impression that there was a second bill, as yet unnumbered. All of which could have been avoided.

Journalists and editors: whenever possible, name the legislation you're covering!