Tools Every Congressional Staffer Should Know About

Time is always tight on the Hill for staffers. They work long hours, holidays, and sometimes even through major life events. Between the countless emails, bill markups and committee meetings, dozens of office and caucus events, constituent and advocacy conferences, and making sure that lawmakers don’t miss votes, it can be hard to make time to get real legislating done in an office.

Staffers often have their own methods for the legislative drafting process. Most staffers learn from more senior staff or are just thrown in the deep end. The legislative process can often take days or even weeks, and there are dozens of factors that take control away from staffers.  

To help them out, we compiled a list of many of the best free tools that congressional staffers can use to create legislation. We cover the phases of the legislative process, from information gathering to legislative drafting, from markup to floor consideration.

Information Gathering:

For those policy heavy pieces of legislation, staffers usually turn to CRS. The Library of Congress/CRS continues to publish many CRS reports on its website. Unfortunately, there are numerous historical reports that are missing and CRS says it has no plans of publishing their reports as data – such as HTML instead of PDFs. Luckily, EveryCRSReport.com contains 15,191 reports and counting and includes the ability to download to an e-reader and compare version changes. Moreover, Oversight.gov has nearly all IG reports in a searchable spot. And you can always find GAO’s reports on its website. Finally, USLaw.link enables you to look up any law enacted by congress from 1789-present

In a perfect world, Congress would have an information repository similar to the European Parliamentary Technology Assessment (EPTA), which has a database of OTA-like reports from around the world. Then there is IFTTT, which enables you can connect different APIs to build tools and alerts and automate tasks. Plus, the PDF table extractor from the National Resource Governance Institute helps save tons of time when gathering data.  

Finally, gathering information on previous efforts for similar bills is essential to successful legislative gathering. ProPublica’s Congressional Statement tool lets you search press releases issued by every Member of Congress. DearColleague.us provides an unofficial compilation of publicly available Dear Colleague letters.

Legislative Drafting:

Traditionally, staffers provide an outline of the desired bill to the Office of Legislative Counsel (OLC), and an OLC attorney drafts the legislation. This often is an iterative process that requires phone calls and email exchanges that can take days or weeks, with OLC asking questions and congressional staff updating their ideas.

Staff usually run into hold ups regarding bill language or effects to existing law, especially when they are working other congressional offices or outside stakeholders. Additionally, OLC usually sends bill drafts back as PDFs, making it much more difficult to make changes or openly collaborate with others. 

Our team has been thinking about this issue for a while, so we built a tool that provides a more efficient legislative drafting experience. BillToText.com is a user-friendly interface that converts PDFs from the Legislative Counsel into Docx files, while preserving the content and formatting. 

Since many legislative offices are not able to use collaborative document software like Google Docs, there are resources like Diffchecker.com that allows the text changes between two documents to be compared. 

The Bill Hearing and Markup:

Interested in knowing what will be happening in congressional committees? Congress.gov’s committee calendar provides a joint house and senate calendar broken down by day. 

Want some legislative analysis? Jonathan Rayner has released the beta version of Minverva, a Chrome extension for Congress.Gov that adds visualization and analysis to the cosponsor page for a bill. The breakdown includes information like party affiliation and committee membership. Additionally, GovTrack – among many other things, allows you to compare multiple versions of the same bill and provides alerts for legislation. 

Floor Consideration:

While the vast majority of billing of bills die during the committee process, the rare few that make it out receive time on the House floor for consideration. The House Floor website is essential to know what bills are to be considered and the committee schedule on Congress.gov helps provide up to date information on hearings. The House Committee on Rules website also provides updates of all legislation, with amendments, going to the House Floor. Then there is Dome Watch, an all-in-one resource created by the Democratic House Majority Leader’s Office, complete with a live stream feed of what’s expected on the floor plus free Democrat House job announcements. Finally, Capitol Bells is an app that lets you know what is happening on the floor and provides updates in real-time. 

In the Senate, make sure to check out the Senate Webcast, which lets you live stream floor proceedings in real time as well as search and watch previous proceedings all the way back to the 2nd session of Congress. 

Miscellaneous:

Just in case you want to do some additional digging on other topics dealing with Congress, we’ve got that covered too. Money makes the Hill go round, and Political Party Time lists (some) fundraisers for Members of Congress while Open Secrets continues to be the unofficial source for nearly all lobbying and influence information. Also make sure to use the FARA Database on Open Secrets to see which foreign registrants are acting on behalf of foreign interests.

Ever want to know when Congressional web pages are updates. The Congressional Web Harvest from the National Archives lets you see what congressional pages looked like for previous Congresses. The WayBack Machine is the best archive on the interest that enables you to see old and deleted websites. Finally, Visual Ping is a (semi) free tool that lets you know when a website has been changed. 

The Best Twitter Accounts in the Game:

Information is everything, and Twitter is often times the best place to get it. Below are the twitter accounts we recommend to help stay on top of legislative business:

@openataglance — lots of news regarding open government efforts

@everycrsreport — new CRS reports

@oversightgov — all new IG reports

@appropstracker — tweets primary source information regarding appropriations news

@congressrfp — see every request for proposals from Congress

@leadershipflack — statements from leadership in both chambers

@congresseditors — live changes to Wikipedia pages from inside Congress

Staffers and policy professionals alike: stay up to date on resources that will make your job and easier by following @CongressRadar.

Have any thoughts on the tool mentioned? Did we miss anything?  You can email us at Taylor@demandprogress.org. We’d love to hear from you.

— Written by Taylor J. Swift