Capitol Words 2.0


Want to know what lawmakers are talking about on Capitol Hill but you can’t figure out how to get any worthwhile information out of the Congressional Record? Now there’s help. The Sunlight Foundation is proud to announce the relaunch of Capitol Words with much expanded capabilities. Capitol Words gives an at-glance view of the inner workings of Congress by distilling each day in session into one, single word.

The new Capitol Words provides a calendar view of the word of the day and charts showing word usage trends going back to the second session of the 106th Congress (January 24, 2000). Views that attribute word usage to lawmakers date back to the beginning of the 110th Congress (January 3, 2007). Words are also able to be match together and compared. See whether “Saddam” or “Osama” is a more commonly used word, or “Health” or “Education.” Other new functions are available and explained on the About page.

In many ways, Capitol Words serves as a zeitgeist-o-meter, as each word, when used over and over again, serves to reveal the pressing issue of the day (or sometimes helps explain the legislative process). For example, the top ten words of the year, aside from those reflecting the legislative process, all reveal what issues Congress found of paramount import to debate. Let’s take a deeper look at these words:

1. Energy (50,140)

While you may not remember now, gas prices were over $4.00 during the summer. Guess what Congress was talking about then? Energy Policy! During the summer months of June to September, “Energy” was the leading word of the day for 14 days. (“Energy” led all words in being the leading word for 16 days during the year.) In all, Congress voted on three bills with the word “Energy” in the title. These bills include the Energy and Tax Extenders Act of 2008, Comprehensive American Energy Security and Consumer Protection Act of 2008, and Energy Markets Emergency Act of 2008. Numerous other bills included important provisions related to energy. Before the total and complete meltdown of the American system of finance, “Energy” was the most debated policy priority of the year.

2. Health (41,001)

Nearly every year, health care is a major issue in Congress. This year, the major bills under consideration included the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act and the Mental Health Parity Act. There was also an attempt to override President Bush’s veto of the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, a top priority of congressional Democrats. Another factor may have been National Public Health Week (April 7-13).

3. Service (37,287)

One way that lawmakers use the Congressional Record is to honor members of their districts by including a letter in the Record with laudatory praise. Nearly all of these letters commend and honor the service of the individual or organization. Some samplings: “With 26 years of active commissioned service , Colonel Flowers has served our country in a variety of diverse assignments;” “John Playter might not be a household name for many, but his service to our country during World War II certainly earns him a leading role in America’s Greatest Generation;” “I rise today to honor and celebrate the anniversary of Michigan Radio for 60 years of service to the state of Michigan and the citizens of Southeast Michigan.” There are thousands of these letters inserted into the Record each year.

4. Public (32,428)

This one doesn’t exactly tell us what lawmakers are discussing but rather where they are discussing it: in the public sphere. See how it works: When our public officials are discussing public bills in the public arena the word “public” will undoubtedly wind up in the public record. Furthermore, public officials can commit public corruption by betraying the public trust. Also, and perhaps most important here, a very common headline in the Congressional Record is: Deletions of Sponsor From Public Bills and Resolutions.

5. Oil (32,198)

Just like with “Energy,” oil was a constant topic of conversation across the country this year. The concerns about high oil prices and high gas prices among citizens are reflected in the words of their elected representatives. Democrats sought to impose restrictions on the oil trading markets as prices per barrel spiked to never before seen highs. Republicans called for further oil exploration under the mantra “Drill here, drill now!” Only “Energy” had more days as the word of the day. Notably, the number one lawmaker saying “Oil,” a total of 1,466 times, was Peak Oil enthusiast Roscoe Bartlett.

6. Report (30,858)

Most all bills come equipped with an accompanying report. More importantly, every bill that dares to pass Congress will eventually be reconciled in a Conference Report. After reconciliation is complete, both chambers of Congress will vote on the Conference Report. And they talk a lot about that Report. Also, bills and resolutions are reported to the floor for a vote.

7. Provide (29,778)

Bills provide for changes to previous legislation, or they provide certain monies or services to departments or groups of citizens. The word provide is necessary in both the writing of bills, which are introduced into the Congressional Record, and the discussion of them. There is simply no way to avoid using this word.

8. Security (29,241)

Social Security, Homeland Security, national security, border security, port security, rail security, security clearance, cyber security, climate security, data security, security blanket. Could there be a better word for a politician? It’s as though Frank Luntz and George Lakoff created a baby with the DNA extracted from a focus group.

9. Country (28,894)

Is it possible to constantly talk about the country, and the passage of laws that affect the country, without using the word “country”? Short answer: No.

10. Percent (28,682)

Every bill, every policy, every speech comes along with a set of statistics and those are represented by percentages. The percent of the tax rate one lawmaker wants to lower is the percent of the tax rate one lawmaker wants to raise. The same goes for the percent of auto emissions, the percent of the poverty rate, the percent of the budget. The language of policy requires the use of the word “percent,” thus its prominence in this list.