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Does Congress Really Suck?

Location: Columbia
Team: Nilkanth Patel

Goal: The goal is to take the data that's available at these amazing foundries like GovTrack and the various Sunlight sites, and present it in way that's both accessible and easily understandable for the user. Ideally, we can use this information to present a cohesive set of evaluations for Congress's efficacy, leaving the final judgment up to the user—we don't intend to be "pro" or "anti" Congress, just an unbiased set of data. Again, usability is key. It should be easy to understanding and visually grasping.

Project Description:
This question has been thrown around a lot lately. Following the fiscal cliff debacle, the Speaker of the House, Mr. John Boehner, has taken considerable criticism for his lack of leadership in the House of Representatives. Some of it is deserved, but certainly not all of it. I wanted to take a more holistic look at whether or not the current Congress (mostly the House of Representatives) really does suck, and if so, why. I don't necessarily have an answer, but there is plenty of data that can help us evaluate the answer. I think the question can be answered in four parts:
  1. A simple evaluation of this Congress’s efficacy, compared to previous sessions, to see whether they suck.
    • See how many bills are passed by Congress for the past nine or so terms. This is done by downloading the bills data from GovTrack's standard API.
    • Use GovTrack's bulk dataset (for download) to analyze the subjects of these bills (based on the subject and the House/Senate committee that introduced them to Congress). This was done by downloading the dataset on my home computer, and running the XML files through an algorithm that categorized and counted them based on the introductory committee.
    • Produce a new dataset categorizing bills and allow users to see this breakdown for each of the past nine Congresses.
  2. Some findings about the relationship between recent increases in political donations and the content of legislation being passed to see how much Congress’s goals and productivity are being influenced by donors. A big claim made is that Congress bends to appease its donors, but not necessarily its constituents. Analyze the data to see whether this is true.
    • I used Influence Explorer's API to break down which industries donated how much for the lat ten Congresses.
    • Using the API, it was possible to allow the user to switch between years and see the breakdowns for different election cycles.
    • The data also explains which parties these industries donated more to, and which politicians in particular. Users can see this data by clicking on an Industry.
  3. A statistical determination of whether partisanship, a leading cause behind impotent sessions of Congress, has actually increased during the past couple sessions.
    • Using the GovTrack API, I counted the number of independents in the last ten cycles of the House.
    • After displaying that data, the user has the opportunity to see the party breakdown of seats and see which politicians occupied which seats in the House.
  4. A real-time look at the general public’s opinion of Congress through social media. This is simply a feed of tweets featuring the hashtag "#Congress" along with some of the surveys published by Gallup and USA Today regarding the public's approval of Congress.
Libraries: The project was executed using the Congress and Influence Explorer APIs at Sunlight Labs in tandem with the GovTrack API. All code was written in Javscript and presented using HTML/CSS.

Project Categories: Best in Potential.

All working files have been attached here (they require access to various APIs) in the file "" The full site can also be viewed at
Nilkanth Patel,
Feb 3, 2013, 11:54 AM