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Trying to track committee hearings? Why docs.house.gov may be your best bet

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Running_istock

By Carrie Tian and Matt Rumsey. Research Assistance by Justin Lin.

Every morning in Washington staffers, lobbyists, activists, and ordinary citizens are faced with choices as they try to schedule their days on Capitol Hill. To fill their calendars and get to hearings on time they have to navigate several, often conflicting, sources of information to find the right date, time, and hearing room. As a result they can find themselves checking their laptops before leaving the house and refreshing their phones as they rumble down the Redline.

Docs.House.Gov, among its other features, aims to simplify this problem by becoming a one-stop repository for information on House committee hearings. We decided to look back at the first six months of this program to see how close it was coming to the ideal of including every House committee hearing, as compared to the other sources of “the same” information, notably house.gov/legislative and individual committee websites.

Methodology and Broad Findings

To do this, our fearless intern Carrie Tian set out on a quest to scrape all of the hearing data from docs.house.gov and house.gov/legislative into a spreadsheet that we could easily analyze. She pulled data from both sites between January 1, 2013 and June 25, 2013. Our analysis is based on data that was pulled from the sites on June 25, 2013. The individual sites may no longer reflect this snapshot in time.

While no perfect control exists, we decided that committees would be most likely to keep their own websites up to date with accurate information. With this in mind, we were able to draw some conclusions about the performance of docs.house.gov and house.gov/legislative.

Notably, it is apparent that there is buy in from nearly every committee when it comes to using docs.house.gov. It’s not all perfect, some subcommittees have lagged in compliance and none of the Intelligence Committee’s activity has been logged, but overall compliance is robust.

In contrast, House.gov/legislative was far more likely to undercount the number of hearings and had more wide spread gaps in information. For example, information on hearings from six committees is missing entirely from house.gov/legislative for the first four months of the year and at least some hearings are missing for 15 committees.

In aggregate, committee websites that we analyzed identified 853 hearings over our chosen time period. Docs.House.Gov slightly overshot this total, listing 878, while House.Gov/Legislative missed a large number of hearings, only identifying 582.

Docs.House.Gov findings

For the committees for which docs.house.gov listed more events than the actual committee site had, the cause was normally rescheduling. For instance, in the Appropriations committee, a single event - "Commodity Futures Trading Commission Budget" - was originally planned for March 6th, then rescheduled for March 20th, then finally held on April 12th. The system is set up to track these changes, ensuring that interested parties can understand the whole history of a hearing, possibly tying its schedule changes to world events, newly revealed documents, or political maneuvering.

The common culprit when hearings were missing was apparent lack of compliance by several subcommittees. Broadly, the Oversight and Investigations subcommittees were particularly troublesome with all hearings missing from the Oversight Subcommittees of the Armed Services, Financial Services, Science, Space, and Technology, and Veterans Affairs Committees.

Our research revealed a few other interesting quirks. For example, all of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee hearings were mislabeled as Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearings. All of those Health Subcommittee hearings were also listed as Ways and Means hearings. Meanwhile, all of the hearings that should have been listed under Science, Space, and Technology’s Oversight Subcommittee were labeled as Ways and Means hearings.

Conclusions, next steps, and further reading

In its first six months, Docs.House.Gov proved to be a reliable source of information about committee hearings. While it was not a perfect source, it did accurately list the majority of House committee hearings and proved to be more trustworthy than House.gov/legislative, its closest comparison as a broad source.

Our analysis was specifically geared towards identifying the number and topics of hearings listed on docs.house.gov and did not include documents, including witness testimony, amendment text, and vote totals, posted for each hearing or markup. Document aggregation is a valuable service provided by docs.house.gov that deserves its own dedicated analysis.

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