So you want to track bills through Congress? An app review
Update: It’s not an app, but I also highly recommend GovTrack.us, which does much of the “work” tracking for you, an has an Open API for any would be developers in this area and a regularly-updated twitter feed.
Congress hasn’t been a super fun place to hang out recently. Things happen around the edges, but the players have such low expectations of each other very little happens. Sure — you can count on the government generally not shutting down anymore after a few embarrassing slips, but they don’t call it gridlock for nothing.
That’s about to change.
The results of the November 8 election means one party controls the House, Senate and the presidency. What this means on any piece of particular legislation is up to a grand amount of debate and speculation right now. But what you can be sure of is there will be far more momentum to pass legislation in Congress than you’re used to.
With this in mind, I wanted to offer a review of some of the existing mobile apps available to track legislation as it comes through Congress and contacting your representatives about bills that matter to you.
My interaction with these apps as a journalist will be very different than an advocate or newly-curious person, so I’ve approached these reviews with a broader use in mind. This will be a helpful guide for you, if you’re someone who:
- Regularly uses a mobile phone for things like checking Facebook/reading news apps
- Has core political interests but does not consider themselves an activist or very closely follows political news
- Is willing to call/write their representative before a vote on a key issue or willing to call/write to thank their representative for their vote
- Has limited time and needs notifications to know when is the best time to take action. This person can’t be manually tracking or constantly reading Politco, et al.
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App availablity: iOS
Promise: “Vote on bills and issues that you care about, and we’ll let your representative know what you think directly”
Actual use: When you open Ballot and create an account, it asks for you to choose interests, with a range of specificity — i.e. from “federal government” to “healthcare” to “Medicare”. I chose a collection of interests at random. Your home screen then fills with bills related to these interests.
Within each bill module, there is the full title, if the bill is currently before the House or Senate, and the short and full summaries from Congress’ own website. On the bottom of each bill is a “Oppose/Support” button. Clicking either will ask you to confirm, and then… well, your opposition or support is recorded, but I’m not certain where. Is it sent to your representative’s office? In what form?
Ballot also has a search function that you can put free text in or choose from trending topics.
I’d like to change what interests I added in Ballot, but every time I go to the “profile” tab, the app crashes. Ballot also seems to have been made by a number of Michigan students (go Blue!), who may be moving on to other internships and projects. There is also no sense of timing on any of the bills — i.e. when it was introduced, when there was last action taken on it, or when there might be an upcoming vote.
Final thought: Ballot’s simple, easy to use interface with focus on interests might make it a great app one day, but there are technical issues to be solved and there needs to be more clarity around what “voting” in the app does.
App availability: iOS/Android
Promise: “Countable makes it quick and easy to understand the laws Congress is considering. We also streamline the process of contacting your lawmaker, so you can tell them how you want them to vote on bills under consideration.”
Actual use: Countable asks you for location (to match you to your reps) and your interests when you first login and make an account. The main screen is a news feed screen that includes blog posts written by Countable staff, recently passed bills and upcoming votes. The order in which this appears is not obvious to me.
With an account and selected interests, Countable also has a notifications tab that includes bills “featured” for you. Banners describe whether the featured bills are recently passed or “upcoming”. Each bill module is titled as a “question” — i.e. “Do Sanctions on Assad’s supporters need to be increased?” and includes a short summary, summaries for arguments for and against, sponsor, bill number, potential costs, as well as latest actions.
The example above was an “upcoming” bill in my featured tab, but the last action in the app was in July. So what does “upcoming” mean? I cross checked this particular bill and found it had been passed in the House on the 16th, and was now before the Senate. The notification arrived sometime on the 18th). While in theory I still have time to contact my Senator on this bill, there’s no obvious information about how upcoming it is and where I should focus my attention. The bill module did not reflect the recent House passage.
Some of this might be an issue with how Congress shares it’s data, or how quickly or not bills can be brought up to a vote as long as they’ve cleared other hurdles. But like with Ballot, there’s not a sense of what I should be immediately concerned with.
Countable does have a far more obvious “contact your rep” interface. Once I’ve clicked on “yea” or “nay” in a bill module, it brought me to another screen that allows me to write a personal opinion (or even a video message!) that both lives in the app and is sent to my representative. I’m still unclear what the “result” looks like on the rep’s side, but I like the ability to make a personal appeal.
Another item - you can follow advocacy/civil society orgs that exist on the platform to see what bills they are commenting on (the NRA and Everytown for Gun Violence are right next to each other on the list).
Final thoughts: I’m not interested in Countable’s own editorial items clogging up the feed, and the sense of timing could be improved, but the contact representative feature and the information given on the bill are both user-friendly and informative.
Promise: “The most intuitive hyper government app ever”
Actual use: The home screen is a news feed of Congress related stories from an outlet of your choice (Washington Post, Fox News, etc)
From the main menu you can look at legislators, bills, votes and commitees. Each legislator page has the option to turn on notifications/tracking for that person’s votes as well as a link to the email contact form and direct phone contact.
The bill section is organized by “trending” and “coming up”. Looking at a particular bill you can find a link to the main text, sponsor, as well as clear description of the bill’s status, including where it’s going to next.
You can turn on notifications for each bill or each committee as well.
I turned on a couple of notifications and have been impressed by the speed at which they are delivered — but this has mostly been votes already taken. It will be interesting to see how much extra value I get from notifications from a certain legislator or House committee.
Final Thoughts: FedCaddy does the things I want the other apps to do well (clear answer on a bill’s status and timing, notifications by bill/legislator/commitee) but it’s doesn’t have an easy way to discover new bills via interest tracking. (Getting notifications for an entire committee is a blunt, largely imperfect tool to do so). I will definitely be keeping it on my phone as a resource, but I suspect it will be most useful to people already well-immersed in the day-t0-day of Congress.
Promise: “Track legislation across all 50 states & Congress.”
Actual Use: Track Bill is free to download, but a full account will cost you an unspecified amount of money — which leads me to believe this is designed with a business’ legislative affairs office in mind.
But without creating an account, Track Bill is a fairly good reference app — it includes bills and legislators for both the US Congress and all the state legislatures.
You can also search by keyword across all legislators or a particular one.
There’s no ability to receive notifications on any of this information without an account, though.
Final Thoughts: Potentially amazing, but potentially expensive. If anybody feels interested in pricing an account of Track Bill, do let me know.
So what’s the verdict?
Given my technical issues and lack of date information — Ballot, unfortunately, is out for me. Track Bill — while exceptionally useful for a journalist covering a state legislature looking for specific kinds of legislation, doesn’t fit for general use. Countable and FedCaddy are strong contenders but both have very different strengths and don’t fit the use I outlined above 100% in a single app alone. I’ll keep both Countable and FedCaddy on my phone and see which one I use more.
I’m also interested in what the messages sent from Ballot and Countable look like when congressional staff sees them. I’ve contacted the media affairs team of my own represenative (Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton) to see if I can find out how they categorize these messages. I’ll update if I find anything else out.
Is there an app I’ve missed? A system of your own that you’ve hacked together that works for you? Let me know in the comments.