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Critical Thinking Resources for Congress
Concord Coalition

Founded in 1992 by former Sens. Warren Rudman (R., N.H.) and Paul Tsongas (D., Mass.) and former Secretary of Commerce Peter Peterson, the Concord Coalition is “a nationwide, nonpartisan, grassroots organization advocating fiscal responsibility while ensuring Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are secure for all generations.”

The coalition’s website includes links to reports classified by issue area, including the federal budget, the national debt, Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid. The site also includes annual scorecards on fiscal responsibility for each member of Congress. Funding for the group comes primarily from individual donations. Coalition staff members analyze data generated by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and General Accounting Office.

Comments: The Concord Coalition generally argues for spending and entitlement cuts and against unfunded tax cuts. The coalition has championed the so-called PAYGO rule, which would require that all new spending programs and all new tax cuts be revenue-neutral (meaning they must be paid for by equivalent spending cuts or tax increases elsewhere in the budget). The facts it cites in support of its arguments are generally solid and well-documented.

Political Leanings: Fiscally moderate to conservative

Congressional Budget Office

The Congressional Budget Office's stated mission is to “provide the Congress with the objective, timely, nonpartisan analyses needed for economic and budget decisions.” Its director is appointed jointly by the majority leaders of the House and Senate.

Visitors can search the CBO’s various and respected cost estimates of policy proposals, and they can also find the office’s publications sorted by subject area, document type and those most recently published. The Monthly Budget Review gives figures on rates of federal spending, and the Current Budget Projections and Current Economic Projections give CBO’s take on where federal spending and the U.S. economy are headed. Some CBO studies provide information available nowhere else, such as tabulations of effective tax rates and the share of taxes paid by people at various income levels.

Comments: The CBO has a long history of professionalism and nonpartisan analysis, regardless of which party controls Congress. Its assumptions and projections often differ from those of the president’s Office of Management and Budget, and they provide a “second opinion” on such things as what proposed new legislation is likely to cost or how much tax revenue the economy is likely to generate.

Congressional Research Service

The Library of Congress houses the Congressional Research Service, “the public policy research arm of the United States Congress.” The CRS performs independent, nonpartisan and objective research for members of Congress and their staffs on a nearly endless array of issues. The Librarian of Congress appoints the director of the CRS, which has a large, knowledgeable staff and receives a sizable budget.

The CRS no longer releases its reports to the general public, but many can be found fairly easily online. The U.S. State Department and independent groups including the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and the National Council for Science and the Environment post the full text of some CRS reports relating to each group’s area of interest. The Open CRS Network website has a search engine that combines the resources of several, though not all, of these sites. The public can also purchase reports from some websites. And if time permits, individuals can request paper copies of specific reports directly from their senator or representative.

The CRS is acclaimed for its objective and thorough analyses. Authors are aware that they are writing for an audience that includes both Republicans and Democrats, and they are meticulous about avoiding partisanship.

FactCheck.org

According to its website, FactCheck.org is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” Its staff monitors factual accuracy in American politics, looking at what’s being said in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and the like.

The website has three main outlets for its work: Articles, the FactCheck Wire (for shorter items or ones of less national interest) and Ask FactCheck (in which the group’s staff members answer questions sent in by readers, often about chain e-mails on political subjects). The group debunks myths, falsehoods and exaggerations by politicians and outside groups involved in election campaigns and public policy debates. Examples of FactCheck.org’s work include stories about misinformation spread during public policy debates such as the one on overhauling the health care system, and inaccurate claims made during election campaigns such as John McCain’s position on Medicare or Barack Obama’s birthplace. The group’s work is often cited by other media organizations.

FactCheck.org is funded by, and is a project of, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which was established by the Annenberg Foundation with a $20 million endowment in 1993. The Annenberg Foundation also made additional grants to support FactCheck.org’s work. The APPC accepts no funding from business corporations, labor unions, political parties, lobbying organizations or individuals. In 2010, FactCheck.org began accepting donations from individual members of the public. Its does not accept any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations or advocacy groups.

Political Leanings: None

Government Accountability Office

Formerly known as the General Accounting Office, the GAO changed its name in July 2004 to the Government Accountability Office. It is the investigative arm of Congress, serving both Republican and Democratic members. The GAO evaluates federal programs, audits federal expenditures, issues legal opinions and makes recommendations for improved efficiency. The head of GAO is known as the comptroller general.

In addition to offering materials sorted according to a variety of featured issues, the GAO’s website compiles congressional reports and testimony. A helpful page for newcomers to the site offers introductions to the GAO and a list of the “Top 10” GAO publications of the previous month.

Comments: GAO’s reports are thorough and authoritative, and they often provide excellent summaries of federal programs. Users should be cautious of reports responding to individual members of Congress, who sometimes tailor their questions to bring forth answers that support their side of a policy debate.

GPO Access

GPO Access is a free online service provided by the U.S. Government Printing Office. It was established by the Government Printing Office Electronic Information Enhancement Act of 1993 and is funded by the Federal Depository Library Program.

The website provides an abundance of official documents, reports and other material from all three branches of the federal government. Visitors can either search the site by the individual branch of government, or use the A-to-Z resource list, which compiles all of the site’s government resources in one central location.

The section on the legislative branch includes a number of documents on the congressional law-making process. Here, visitors can find the language of specific bills and follow the congressional calendar, as well as check the Congressional Record to review what members of Congress have said on the floor of the House and Senate. Visitors interested in learning about federal regulations and the U.S. budget, or reading a past State of the Union Address, can find that information in the section on the executive branch. And U.S. Supreme Court material, including transcripts of oral arguments and case dockets with complete case histories, can be found in the judicial branch section, which, for some information, will redirect users to the Supreme Court’s own website.

There’s something for younger visitors as well: Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government for Kids is the site’s educational component. It shows students (K-12), as well as parents and teachers, how to use the resources on GPO Access to better understand how the government works.

Comments: GPOAccess is a gold mine of government information and is a good shortcut for researchers looking for such material.

House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence are responsible for providing “legislative oversight over the intelligence activities of the United States to assure that such activities are in conformity with the Constitution and laws of the United States.” The committees have jurisdiction over the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; the Central Intelligence Agency; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the National Security Agency; and the intelligence agencies of the Departments of State, Justice and Treasury. The Senate and House Committees are also responsible for drafting legislation to provide funding for all U.S. intelligence activities. The Senate committee website provides helpful links to laws and executive orders governing intelligence activities as well as links to its investigations and hearings. Both the House and the Senate committees provide links to each year’s intelligence budgets.

The committees regularly hold hearings to assess the U.S. intelligence community’s effectiveness, such as the intelligence agencies’ pre-war assessment of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities. The Senate committee’s findings from that hearing were issued in a report that is available online or for sale in paper form. Numerous other reports and hearing transcripts are available on the sites, though the Senate committee’s site is generally more useful and user-friendly.

Comments: Because the House and Senate Intelligence Committees have the power to subpoena otherwise reluctant witnesses, their hearings can be enormously helpful in clearing up difficult and complex issues. Their reports, however, are often heavily edited (on the grounds of protecting national security).

Joint Committee on Taxation

This congressional committee – unlike most – does not have separate Democratic and Republican staffs. It was set up in 1926, when the federal income tax in its present form was only 13 years old. Congress sought professional analysis independent of the Treasury Department, which is run by a political appointee named by the president. The Joint Tax Committee uses a sophisticated, computerized microsimulation model of the U.S. federal income tax system, based on information from a random sample of 200,000 tax returns each year, to project the likely effects of proposed changes in tax law.

The main page of the website links directly to text of the committee’s most recent reports and transcripts of hearings. The site also features a table of contents that offers links to the committee’s publications sorted by year.

The committee provides authoritative revenue projections – estimates of how much (in dollars) the government’s income is likely to change as a result of a proposed change in tax law. It also offers good, plain-language descriptions of how a particular tax proposal would work. But the committee provides only limited “distributional analysis” – estimates of how people at various income levels will fare.

LegiStorm

LegiStorm was launched in 2006, originally as a searchable database of congressional staff salaries. It has since expanded to include a range of financial data about legislators and government employees. The site collects staff salaries, trips paid for by private institutions, financial disclosure forms, foreign gifts and earmarks for Congress members and key staff. It also indexes policy reports, congressional schedules, FEC press releases and political news. Much of the data are available elsewhere; for instance, the information on congressional earmarks is drawn from Taxpayers for Common Sense. Some, however, can be difficult to find.

The site is a project of Storming Media, which sells unclassified Pentagon reports. The LegiStorm resources are free but require registration.

In addition, LegiStorm offers some tools for analyzing information. For instance, staffer salary data can be organized by staffer but also by Congress member or committee, and earmarks can be organized by member or by appropriations bill. The trip and earmark sections include spreadsheets that can be reordered to rank members by costliness of trips, number of earmarks and so forth.

LegiStorm is a nonpartisan source. The information is presented without comment, and the affiliated blog is written in a journalistic style.

Comments: LegiStorm's information is sometimes presented in a way that's difficult to understand, and much of the data are available elsewhere. However, this is a good one-stop-shopping spot for publicly available financial information on lawmakers and their staffs, as well as other material on Congress. In particular, staff salaries can be difficult to find elsewhere online.

Political Leanings: None

National Taxpayers Union

The National Taxpayers Union is a lobbying organization favoring “lower taxes and smaller government.” It favors scrapping the income tax in favor of a “flat tax” or a national sales tax. Since its founding in 1969, the Taxpayers Union has been a critic of what it sees as wasteful federal spending, saying “NTU staffers know a boondoggle when they see it.”

The NTU’s home page offers links to its most recent research, including a regular report on “How Taxpayers Fared” in the most recent election from its point of view. The site also offers a useful FAQ about “congressional pay and perks.”

Some NTU material is useful for researchers, notably its calculations of the pensions paid to retiring House and Senate members and its analysis of what lawmakers spend on travel or office expenses. But questions have arisen about its motives for taking on certain issues, such as when it defended Microsoft against antitrust charges in the United States and Europe after receiving $215,000 in software from the company. The NTU’s anti-tax stance leads it to rate Republicans more favorably than Democrats. Nevertheless, the NTU often criticizes both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for what it terms wasteful travel or office spending.

Comments: The NTU keeps tabs on spending by Senate and House members, but its strongly anti-tax perspective colors much of its research.

Political Leanings: Conservative, strongly anti-tax

Project Vote Smart

Project Vote Smart is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that gathers and organizes information on candidates for political office. Vote Smart seeks to discover where candidates stand on any number of issues by scouring public voting records, public statements and biographical information, by monitoring ratings of candidates given by more than 100 competing special-interest groups, and by sending its own detailed questionnaires to candidates through its National Political Awareness Test.

By simply entering their ZIP code, visitors to the site can pull up information on their elected officials and candidates. The site also allows individuals to search specifically for any politician’s voting record, campaign finances, and biographical and contact information.

Additionally, the site compiles rankings of officials done by various interest groups such as the National Rifle Association, the NAACP and the AFL-CIO. There is also a database of officials’ speeches and statements searchable by keyword.

Comments: The website is well organized and easy to use. Unfortunately, many candidates decline to fill out Vote Smart's questionnaires.

Political Leanings: None

THOMAS

The Library of Congress runs THOMAS, an indispensable site for obtaining legislative information. Visitors can search the Congressional Record for the voting histories of individual members of Congress and bills and resolutions by keyword or bill number. It’s possible to track a bill through the legislative process, viewing everything from its original sponsors to what eventually became of it. In addition, congressional committee reports are available and searchable. THOMAS maintains a useful FAQ that explains how to find specific kinds of information and offers some explanation of technical terms.

Comments: For the first-time user, THOMAS can be a little tricky to navigate, but it's the only game in town for this kind of information and is well worth the trouble.

Political Leanings: Neutral

United States Senate Office of Public Records

On the website of this Senate office, visitors can search the disclosure reports that individuals who are hired to lobby government officials must file. The website came into being as a result of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, which aimed to make the business at least somewhat more transparent.

A primer on how to use the website outlines some of the several ways to search the filings. Users can search by a lobbyist’s name, the client name of the company or group that hired the lobbyist, the size of the payment made to the lobbyist, the government office or offices contacted by the lobbyist, and other criteria.

Comments: A useful tool for finding out who is trying to influence lawmakers, and on what issues.

Political Leanings: Neutral

USA.gov

USA.gov calls itself “the official U.S. gateway to all government information.” The U.S. General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications oversees the website, which offers a library of links to government agencies, information about particular laws and regulations, and data and statistics. Visitors can get pertinent links classified by topic and access links to state and local governments as well.

Comments: USA.gov can be a good place to begin for researchers who are unsure of where to look first.