Tools for monitoring skeptic-relevant legislation in the US

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, CC BY-SA 2.0

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Government regulation (of quacks and so on) has always been a key part of the skeptic puzzle. A major avenue for skeptic activism in recent years has been simply lobbying agencies to enforce existing regulations by calling their attention to cases. Groups such as Nightingale Collaboration in England and Friends of Science in Medicine in Australia have created major skeptic wins by doing just that. Rank and file skeptics can pitch in by helping with these campaigns, sometimes using tools like Fishbarrel.

So it only makes sense that skeptics should pay close attention to impending legislation as well. We can certainly support rules changes that would work in our favor when possible.

In my TAM2012 plenary talk, I told the story of a major failure of skeptics to do this in the spring of 2010. A serious effort to amend the flawed DSHEA regulation had been put forward in Congress, and had the backing of nearly every major organization in US sports. It went virtually unnoticed in the skeptic community. But alternative medicine supporters deluged Congress with negative feedback about the bill, and it died very quickly.

Since documenting this, I’ve been investigating tools that skeptics can use to avoid a recurrence of this sad story. Some really excellent new ones have been released just in the last year. As Congress is coming back into session after their summer break right now, I thought it would be a good time to review these tools. Every skeptic should have a few of these in your personal toolbox.


 
As Congress returns, it will be preoccupied with Syria and the ongoing budget crisis. And it is probably worth noting that current Congress is somewhat legendary for not actually accomplishing any work – some have called it the least productive Congress ever. But we should not use these things as an excuse for inaction. That’s just defeatism – and besides, it’s good to stay in practice.

Web Site Tools

If you just want to look up bills, legislators and the like, there are lots of options.  Congress itself runs a site called Congress.gov that will serve up basic searches, but it doesn’t go too far beyond that.  You have to go to third-party sites to get more innovative features.

GovTrack.us (as the name might suggest) is oriented around tracking the things you find.  You can browse or search by keyword, but just about any result page offers a way to add a “tracker”.  Once added, you will get emails whenever something has changed relating to the bill or keyword you searched.  GovTrack also publishes their data in various ways to encourage re-use, including through APIs.  If you are a blogger but not a programmer, you can get embeddable widgets for bills you are tracking that you can add to your own website.

The Sunlight Foundation is a non-profit that creates a number of open government tools.  Even if you like GovTrack.us, I highly recommend their search engine Scout, because not only will it let you do searches and create alerts (just like GovTrack) but it also searches state-level data at Sunlight’s Open:States.  You can also get ongoing updates on what you find, using what Scout refers to as “alerts”.  Another great feature of Scout is when you land on the results for a bill like H.R. 2817, it provides links right back to Congress.gov, GovTrack.us and another site OpenCongress.org.  Sunlight also offers a number of APIs, so if you are a programmer you can build apps on top of the data they’ve exposed.

To take advantage of all the features of either site, you will have to create a login and give them your email address, of course.

Smartphone Apps

These days everyone is on the go, so accessing this same data on your Smartphone is a plus. Three that I recommend:

The Congressional Record is an official government application (for iPhone/iPad) that will let you read the daily printed proceedings of Congress.

Sunlight Foundation’s Congress app is available for both iPhone/iPad and Android. It lets you track legislators and bills, and recently added information about committees.

Sunlight also has an Open:States app (for iPhone/iPad) that handles state-level data.

All of these apps are free.

How Do We Find Specific Things To Track?

I’ve noticed in several of the recent skeptic blogs about pending legislation, that the bloggers only became aware of a particular piece of legislation because they were monitoring the blogs or mailing lists of our cultural competitors.  I think this is a dangerous trend – it gives our competitors the advantage of reacting first.  We should be finding these things, and letting our competitors react to us!

To achieve this, more skeptics should be using GovTrack.us trackers or Scout alerts to flag interesting legislation based on keywords.  A key here is skeptic specialization, something I’ve long recommended.  If you’ve specialized your skeptic work around particular topic areas, it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with a small set of search terms that you can use at these sites.  Set up the alerts, and be prepared to raise the alarm for other skeptics nationwide when you find something.

And don’t forget that your own geography is part of your specialization.  Be sure to track legislation in your own state, and be prepared to sound the alarm more locally.

What Should We Be Tracking Now?

So what should skeptics be tracking right now?  It happens that a brand new tool aimed at that problem was created just last week by the Center for Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy.

They track legislation as part of their work, and put out action alerts when they see something that needs support or opposition.  They’ve used the aforementioned widgets from GovTrack to create this bill tracking page that lists every pending bill they’re currently tracking.  (It even has a memorable short URL for social media use: http://bit.ly/CFIBillTracker). Depending on your particular interests as a skeptic, a few to all of these bills should be interesting to you.

I know of two bills in particular that should be very interesting to scientific skeptics.  The first is H.R. 1757: Vaccine Safety Study Act – a wasteful attempt to mandate government studies of non-existent vaccine dangers.  The second is H.R. 2817: Protect Patient Access to Quality Health Professionals Act of 2013.  This bill would repeal a clause in Obamacare that was created specifically as a loophole to allow non-science-based alternative medicine practitioners to get reimbursed for services.

Both of these bills are currently sitting in the Health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means committee.  That subcommitee has members from California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin – so if you live in any of those states you should definitely be contacting the representatives involved.  (They might be your representative – if so, rally your local skeptics to write them!) You can see the current members of this subcommittee here (or in the Congress smartphone app!)

Why Bother?

Now, you might be thinking I buried the lede here – why bother with creating your own trackers if CFI is doing the work for us?  Well CFI is not omniscient, they make mistakes occasionally, like anyone else. When the bill tracker page first went up, it didn’t include H.R. 2817. I was the one who asked them to add it:

Secondly, if you are a very specialized skeptic, you may be interested in legislation that is too specialized for CFI to track. So its always best to do your own searches and create your own trackers to ensure coverage of your favorite topics.

Conclusion

Skeptics should be proactive in monitoring Congress and state legislatures for pending legislation and other actions that affect our work.  We should not rely on our competitors to alert us to these things – we should seek them out using the many fine tools now available.  When something comes up, we need to alert other skeptics and rally support or opposition, as appropriate using blogs and social media.

Please try out the web sites and apps I’ve listed here, and become proficient with them. The more skeptics who do this, the less likely we’ll have a repeat of that sad story from 2010.

About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,414 other followers