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#CheckYourRep

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

CheckYourRepWith the mid-term election upon us Tuesday, here’s one more chance to be an informed voter—review the votes of your representatives in Congress.

Check your rep.

Eighty-six times so far in the 113th Congress, there has been an up-or-down, final vote in the House or the Senate (or both) on a bill that has become law. Looking them over is a straightforward way for you to see what your representatives have been up to—and to form an opinion based on facts rather than emotions and campaign spin.

On each of the pages linked below, you’ll see a section in the “Learn More” box titled “See How Your Representatives Voted:“. Click on the link to review your representatives’ votes—for, against, or abstained—on the bills that matter to you most.

Do your civic duty! Dig in!

And on Tuesday, go vote!

Public Law 113-1, To temporarily increase the borrowing authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for carrying out the National Flood Insurance Program
Cost: $94.43 per U.S. family (more…)

An Election’s Coming: Watch Your Representatives!

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

Congress is out of session through the upcoming election on November 4th. They’re trying to convince you to vote them back into office. There’s decent background on the elections at Wikipedia’s United States elections, 2014 page. It says the Keystone XL pipeline, the income gap, net neutrality, and Obamacare are important issues.

Rep Watch Demo 1But who cares what they say? What matters is what YOU think.

So spend some time looking at the work your representatives did in the 113th Congress.

Haven’t looked up your member of Congress before? Here’s how.

1) Go to the WashingtonWatch.com home page.

Rep Watch Demo 22) Click on the “Representatives” tab.

3) You can click on the “By State” link or the “Alphabetical” link to find a link to your representatives’ pages. If you don’t already know their names, go to this Senate list to look up your two senators and this House list to find your representative.

4) Look through the material on your representative’s and senators’ pages.

You’ll first find a list of the bills that he or she has sponsored in the current Congress. Are they things that matter to you? Are they on the right side of the issues you care about?

Rep Watch Demo 3Below that is a list of bills they have cosponsored. Cosponsoring is signing onto the bills that others have sponsored. Do you like what you see in terms of co-sponsorship?

Keep scrolling down. Get a sense of your representatives’ priorities by examining the committees they serve on. Look at the federal agencies that are affected by the bills your representative has sponsored.

Further down, you can see a list of the laws that your representative is trying to affect with his or her bills. (Our “laws” and “U.S. Code” pages are still being built out. Sorry they’re not as informative as we’d like them to be.)

We think this is a good way to learn about the work of your representatives and senators. The attack ads that dominate the airwaves tell you some things. Your newspaper editorials tell you some things. WashingtonWatch.com can tell you more things that help you decide how to vote in the next election.

5) Tell a friend! Elections and politics are about how our society runs, so it’s your job to make your society know about this resource and how you think.

There’s a quick run-through. An election is coming: Watch your representatives!

Actually, Monica Wehby was Pretty Much Right

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Senate candidate Monica Wehby (R) recently used information from WashingtonWatch.com to argue a point in her campaign to unseat incumbent Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (D). PolitiFact Oregon called her statement false, but they got it wrong. Wehby was pretty much right. There’s nuance to understand. Read on…

Wehby, the Portland pediatric neurosurgeon challenging Merkley, described Merkley’s vote in favor of S. 1769, the Rebuild America Jobs Act (112th Congress) as “typical of a Washington insider like Senator Merkley.” She said she would have voted no on the bill “because this legislation would have cost the average American family $1,000 a year while making no significant impact to fix our infrastructure and roads.”

WashingtonWatch.com was the source of the number that Wehby used (actually $958.40), and it’s a good reflection of the cost the bill would have had if it had passed. But PolitiFact Oregon called the statement false.

To my surprise, PolitiFact Oregon used yours truly as its chief authority on that finding. The report said that I “faulted Wehby’s claim on two counts.”

The first involved the $958.40 figure itself. In reality, [Harper] said, only half of that would come in the form of new taxes. The remainder really doesn’t count since it’s in the form of new spending. And while it could be argued that new spending amounts to a long-term debit, the CBO’s own finding that the bill was budget-neutral negates that point.

I didn’t say or imply to Politifact that spending “really doesn’t count.” It counts. The methodology we use here counts it.

Here’s what I wrote to the reporter:

The CBO score for S. 1769 (click “Read an analysis of the bill” on the bill’s page) shows revenues (taxes – a cost) of about $56.8 billion and outlays (spending – a cost) of $56.5 billion. That made S. 1769 a high-cost bill — it proposed increasing both taxes and spending — but it was fairly budget-neutral, increasing the average family’s share of the national debt by only about $40 per average family.

If Wehby claimed that the bill would have cost the average American family about $1,000 in new taxes, I think that is incorrect. It would have cost about $500 per family in new taxes and about $500 per family in new spending.

Wehby’s claim was not that it would cost $1,000 in new taxes, though, as the PolitiFact reporter said to me in his inquiry. It was that the bill “would have cost the average American family $1,000 a year.” That is a correct number. (The reporter did not catch or raise with me that our net present value calculation produces a one-time cost figure—not the cost per-year.)

While I pointed out that the bill was relatively budget-neutral, candidate Wehby didn’t make any claim about the budgetary effects of the bill. A bill can cost a lot and be budget-neutral. This one did and was.

The second point that the Politifact report attributed to me “was that ‘average families’ would not have borne the burden of any new costs because language in the bill made clear that it would be financed by a 0.7 percent surtax on millionaires.”

Here’s what I said to the reporter on that question:

As the bulk of the revenues would have come from a surtax on people with a modified AGI above $1,000,000, I see an argument that this would not have come from “average families” in the “median” or “mode” sense. But our calculations are literal averages — the arithmetic mean — which is produced by dividing costs among all families in the U.S. That approach makes the most sense for outlays, as funds in the U.S. treasury can be thought of as “owned” by all the people, and expenses should be treated as falling on all of us. The average/arithmetic mean makes less sense when it comes to revenues because they often come from distinct sets of taxpayers, such as the relatively well off.

“It’s up to you,” I wrote to the reporter, “whether you believe it’s expected in the context of Wehby’s statement to get into tax incidence. You can ding her for that omission if your judgment is that it’s something she should have included.”

In other words, I didn’t fault Wehby for failing to discuss tax incidence. The PolitiFact reporter did, falsely attributing it to me. I called Wehby’s statement “accurate” and left the question of subtlety around tax incidence to the reporter.

There’s a real point behind the reporter’s conclusion, of course: It’s an entirely legitimate policy proposal to tax higher-income people and use the funds to pay for road construction and such. But the legitimacy of that policy proposal doesn’t make Wehby’s statement false. It was a correct and literally accurate statement about the costs of the bill.

It turns out that issues around the “costs” of legislation are hard to figure out when a bill has both revenue and spending measures. We’ve given it a lot of thought over years here and come up with a pretty good methodology (explained and caveated at WashingtonWatch.com’s “about” page.)

It’s unfortunate that PolitiFact Oregon is faulting Wehby for making an accurate statement about cost rather than directly raising the question whether Oregon voters would prefer a tax increase aimed at wealthier people.

Introducing – Representatives!

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Want to know which bills your representatives in Congress have sponsored and cosponsored?

Simply find their pages in this state-by-state listing and scroll down to see the bills they’re involved with.

The new “Representatives” section of WashingtonWatch.com allows you to see more of what’s happening in Washington, D.C.

In addition to looking over representation by state, you can see an alphabetical list, a list of members by seniority, and—here’s an interesting one—a list of who has sponsored and cosponsored the most bills.

The representatives most discussed on WashingtonWatch.com are featured on the “Representatives” home page.

Every representatives page has the same commenting, voting, and wiki editing that bill pages have. Let people know what you think! (Be nice…)

And now on every bill page, you can see who it’s sponsors and co-sponsors were. It’s a nice window onto the world of Washington, D.C. Is the bill you’re interested in one that has support from only one party? Or is it a bipartisan bill?

Want to know which bill has the most cosponsors? Take a look!

We hope that this will make WashingtonWatch.com a more useful resource for you. We plan to add more information in the near future.

Take a look at your representatives’ activity in Washington, D.C., and then please tell a friend!

The Corruption in Government

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

What did you expect when you gave control of huge piles of money to a small number of people, and you made it your practice to stop in and check on them just once every two years?

A pair of news items in the Washington Post last week illustrate what might be called “the corruption in government.” That’s not corruption in government—an infection of illegal behavior making its way into an otherwise clean system. The corruption in government is the idea that having political leaders take control of wealth is naturally going to cause abuse. Abuse that’s 100% legal, even.

For the first story, the Post did an investigation turning up where members of Congress have directed aid to their home districts in ways that have benefited themselves personally. The story features Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), who directed funds to downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama, directly adjacent to property he owns.

In addition, the Post looked into whether politicians’ relatives were benefiting from the aid they were sending home. Sure enough, members of Congress are sending federal dollars to organizations where their spouses and children work. Norm Dicks (D-WA) ranks atop this story, having delivered a $1.8 million earmark to the Washington state environmental agency where his son worked as executive director.

We’ve done so much work on earmarks here. It’s a shame to see them still having their corrosive effects.

What to do about all this?

Get mad? Waste of time and energy.

Campaign to get the baddies out of office? You could, but that’s a lot of work without much reward.

Around here, we think the way to fix this problem is to increase transparency. Make this kind of thing easier to figure out for more people and it will be harder for members of Congress to do themselves and their kin favors like this.

A report out of the Cato Institute last September (written by yours truly) discussed the things that Congress and the rest of the federal government to make information about their doings more available. It’s called “Publication Practices for Transparent Government.” Cato has also graded how well Congress publishes information (summary: poorly) and how well the government publishes information about budgeting, appropriating and spending (summary: also poorly).

Reading up on this will help you understand what transparency can do in this area, and we think it can do a lot.

Here on WashingtonWatch.com, we have a petition supporting transparency called “We Want an Orderly and Transparent Congress. Logged-in users can comment on the petition page, where we will begin organizing people when the time is right. The more people signed on to that petition, the better! Tell your friends! Once we reach critical mass, we’ll go to work on pressing Congress to change itself so that the corruption in government is at least minimized.

The Pork Barrel

Friday, November 4th, 2011

The site’s a little odd, but you’ll catch on quick: supposed fiscal conservatives who go hunting for money for special projects in their districts. The site is called The Pork Barrel.

Being Presidential

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

A couple of interesting things have happened over the last few weeks that offer an insight into professional politics. It’s all about the spin, baby.

First, consider this: It is pretty much optional for a president to get involved in a weather event like Hurricane Irene. Oh, maybe there’s some political risk to not being out front, but if Hurricane Katrina is any lesson, it’s that getting out front can be a liability. Nobody thinks, “Good job, Bushy” when they recall the president at the time saying, “Good job, Brownie.”

Why do you suppose President Obama made such a point of involving himself and federal resources in battling a weather event that was well handled by states, localities, and people? Because it gave him a chance to be presidential. In a way that he wanted.

Hurricane Irene allowed everyone in the political-watching classes to take a day or two off from the economy and joblessness. President Obama got to reinforce his image as the president-not-presiding-over-a-continuing-bad-economy. And he made the most of it.

The economy is not going away, of course, and President Obama has planned for some time to address the economy in September. An interesting thing happened on the way to the speech, though. He doesn’t seem to have checked with the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives before scheduling his speech in the House chamber for tomorrow, September 7th.

Speaker Boehner said, “Mmmmm, no. Why don’t you come back on Thursday, a night on which there isn’t a Republican presidential debate.” Shorter version: “It’s MY House!”

Political watchers take that as either a notable gaffe on the part of the president and his team, or a notable thumbing-of-the-nose on the part of the House Speaker.

You don’t have to agree with the way we’ve told the story here. Doesn’t matter. All of this goes to the kabuki dance that dominates so much of politics. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s getting the best table at the fancy steak house?

When questions like that filter out to the public, it can make the difference. If people generally feel good about a president, he can command a lot more attention, he can move votes in the House and Senate, he can raise more funds. If he doesn’t look all that good, nothing goes as easily.

It’s interesting to watch the politics. We put more emphasis here on the policy. What actually gets into bills and into law matters more. But when that’s not available—and it is really hard, despite us, to follow what goes on—politics is good entertainment.

Legislators Earn Three Times More Than Average Americans

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Unbelievable. With Congress failing to reach a deal that raises the debt ceiling and brings federal spending under control, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance reported this past week that members of Congress receive pay and benefits far in excess of what average working Americans receive.

Along with their $174,000 per year salary, members of Congress also receive generous fringe benefits that brings total compensation to around $285,000 per year. With the average full-time employee in the United States earning $50,875 annually, Members of Congress make 3.4 times more than the average American. Only one country—Japan—pays legislators such high salaries relative to the earnings of the people.

How do salaries get so high?

Well, in the United States, at least, they get so high because the people have failed to oversee the government. Over decades, a large and opaque government has concealed its workings from the people. Maintaining a government that is well-run and responsive to the people has fallen off the priority list. Wealthy, entitled politicians do a singularly bad job of managing the sprawling government they’ve built, and they reward themselves handsomely for the job they do.

There are no quick fixes, and there’s no use in getting mad about it. The people that are going to bring this problem under control are playing the long game. That means learning about government and politics. It means devoting a little time each week to following what is going on. It means organizing with others and contacting representatives regularly with informed opinions.

Here at WashingtonWatch.com, you may notice that we don’t really focus on the day-to-day in budget battles that have been playing out in recent weeks. If you’ve arrived at your interest in public policy just in time to watch a disaster like the debt ceiling debate going on in Washington now, you’ve already lost. There’s nothing you can do about it but scream and cry. And that’s not doing anything about it.

We’ve tried to create some tools to help players of the long game win. We have a free weekly newsletter that highlights what’s going on in Congress every week. We report regularly on the annual spending bills that are moving through Congress right now (see here, here, and here). Communications with your representatives about these bills and what you think of them might change a vote. If your representative isn’t good at responding to your comments and questions, then you know you’re not being served well. You can communicate this to your friends and neighbors, and you can support a different candidate in the next election.

It’s hard to do a good job of even these things, given the lack of good information available. That’s why we started a petition seeking a transparent and orderly Congress. Such a thing will make it easier for the American people to follow along. With a little over 140 signers at this point, that’s not enough interest to start a movement. Nobody except your humble webmaster has commented on the petition. So it awaits the day when 1,000—or 10,000 people—have called for a well-run Congress.

If the subject of this blog post interests you, the petition to prevent Congress getting automatic pay raises has just 35 signers at this point. Maybe the American people don’t care. When 1,000 or more people have signed that one, a campaign to actually do something in this area may actually be worth doing.

For all the anger in the country, we don’t see a lot of the work being done to actually change things. Congress has got your attention. Congress has got you angry. But Congress hasn’t got you committed to playing the long game, the game that will actually change things. And that’s just where they want you to be.

Debt Limit Politics—and You

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

The commentator class is abuzz this week because the Senate is staying in session, cancelling a planned recess around the Fourth of July holiday. (Happy Fourth, everyone, by the way. The fireworks on the national mall were awesome.)

[Update: Daily negotiations continue the week following the cancelled Fourth-of-July-week recess. Here’s a recently updated news report from Politico.]

When the Senate changes its schedule, it’s a big deal. Senators don’t like to change their plans. And while each and every one of them are talking to reporters about the importance of the debate in Washington (and the carelessness of the other party), more than a few of them are really angry about not getting to be in their home states—yes, to meet with constituents, but also to go to their lake houses, or to their beach houses, and other nice places that they own. Senators lean toward the wealthy side, you know.

What does staying in Washington mean on a political level? (Read the story at the link for more background.) It means that both parties think it’s a good time to fight about taxes, spending, and the debt limit. When both parties think they can win a fight, well, katy-bar the door, it’s time to fight!

(We’ve written about different aspects of this debate here and here and here.)

The outcome of this debate will steer the direction of the country as we move into the next presidential election. Will Democrats win the debate with their sensible argument that it is time to increase revenue and control debt? Or will Republicans win the debate with their principled argument that it is time to control spending? This really is a fascinating political moment. (It also has the quality of children fighting in the sandbox. The biggest debates always do.)

And if you care about the country, you are obliged to participate. If you do not have an opinion, you need to follow this link because the material there is what you need to see. If you have an opinion, follow this link to find your senators’ contact info and this link to find your House member’s contact info. Then let them know: “I want sensible revenue increases to control the debt” or “I want principled spending reductions to control the debt.”

If you fail to contact your representatives in Congress, don’t come crying to this blog or anyone else when things don’t go the way you want. For that matter, don’t come crying if you haven’t signed the petition asking for a transparent and orderly Congress. (When critical mass is reached—that’s 1,000 or maybe 10,000 signatures, things will start to happen. Nothing will if you don’t take the small step of showing that you care.) Don’t come crying if you haven’t told your friends and colleagues about the information you get here on this site, and how you use it to oversee your government.

The Fourth of July holiday is a great time to celebrate our country and the blessings of liberty. The Senate will be working through the week on the issues that they think make political hay. It’s time for you to put in some work on making the country follow the course you think is best.

No Benefits for Crooks!

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

H.R. 2162 would deny retirement benefits accrued by an individual as a Member of Congress if he or she is convicted of certain offenses.

Too bad it doesn’t apply to doing a bad job…