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Re-Newing the Newspaper: The Congress Section in Your Daily Paper

Open most major newspapers, and every day of the workweek you'll see an entire page entitled "Business," "Money," or something like that. By the end of the year 2000, more than 8 thousand stock quotes were listed each and every day in almost every national and regional newspaper across the country.

Less than half of Americans own stock, and of the minority who own stock, a very small portion hold most of the stocks. An incredibly small percentage of Americans trade stocks on a daily basis. For a large segment of the American population, daily information about stocks is useless. Yet it musters its own section in the papers.

What percentage of the American people follow tennis? Tennis scores seem merit full reporting. How many people follow golf? Golf gets coverage, even though Jack Nicklaus' bogeys have a profound, lasting impact on the lives of only a tiny cadre of devotees.

Contrast this with the work of the United States Congress. Every year, the Congress considers, passes, rejects and shelves a number of bills. When bills pass into law, they have a major impact on all Americans' lives. Taxes, civil liberties, the definition of crimes and punishments, social programs, the building of roads, and school standards are just a few of the areas impacted by Congressional action. Inaction, of course, is also important -- laws on flag burning, campaign finance, medical insurance, and citizenship requirements have been consistently rejected; what would our nation look like with them in place? In short, the decisions made by the U.S. Congress have a broad and profoundly deep impact on every American's life.

Yet, curiously, the actions of the Congress receive only scant coverage. You may scoff at this contention: don't we hear every day about the Congress debating this or that bill? Don't we hear some majority or minority leader spouting off at the mouth on a regular basis? Yes, that's certainly true. But a majority of the time, you'll only hear about a bill (or other legislative action) when it's already been passed. A substantial minority of the time, you'll hear about a prominent bill before it's been passed, but after most members of Congress have made up their minds about it (meaning there's little you can do about it). The stark truth is that if you get your information from a newspaper, you'll never see a single word written about an overwhelming majority of bills.

In a nation prefaced on the ability of its citizens to participate in politics in an active and considered fashion, this absence is glaring. It is high time, in my opinion, that our newspapers began offering Congress sections.

It's doable. Here's what I'd set up if I were a journalistic God:

  1. A small set of subscription services (much like the wires) that maintain relatively small staffs of legislative researchers. These services offer their information to multiple newspapers, spreading out the cost. Of course, the Library of Congress already tracks legislation for free, considerably reducing the work needed.
  2. Bills of a particular sort (transportation, constitutional amendments, education, etc.) would receive the spotlight once every two weeks, meaning that a lot of space could be devoted to each bill. Information to be included would be the title, principle sponsor, number (perhaps names, especially of local representatives) of cosponsors, bill summary (already written by the Congressional Research Service), status in the House or Senate, and list of major supporters outside the Congress. Using small type of the stock quote variety, such summaries would take up less than half the space required for those stock quotes of limited relevance.
  3. In regional papers, weekly summaries of the legislative activity of local representatives would include floor and committee votes, a list of bills (with titles) sponsored or cosponsored by the representative, contact information for interested citizens, and information about local appearances the representative may be making in the near future.

As I mentioned above, this kind of information is already being collected: governmentally by the Library of Congress, and commercially by outfits such as Roll Call, the National Journal and Congressional Quarterly. But information is only disseminated online, or in university-located government depositories, or in specialized publications specifically about legislative politics.

Call me an idealist, call me nutty, but I think this kind of information is both relevant and extremely important to disseminate widely. Newspapers have historically been the best way to get such information out. Wouldn't it be just great if newspapers would take up this challenge?

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Editor's note: this article was originally published on Suite101, and has been transferred by the author to this site.