Forgot your password?
typodupeerror

Tracking the Congressional Attention Span 89

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the hot-button-issues dept.
Turismo writes "Ars Technica covers a new research project that uses computers to look at 70 million words from the Congressional Record. The project's goal was to track what our representatives were talking about at any given time, and researchers were able to do it without human training or intervention. From the article: '...researchers found, for instance, that "judicial nominations" have consumed steadily more Congressional attention between 1997 and 2004. In fact, the topic produced the most number of words published in a single "day" of the Congressional Record: 230,000 on November 12, 2003.' It looks like automated topic analysis has truly arrived."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Tracking the Congressional Attention Span

Comments Filter:
  • by vjmurphy (190266) on Friday August 04, 2006 @07:55AM (#15845598) Homepage
    "It looks like automated topic analysis has truly arrived."

    Not according to my in-depth research. Looks like "automated topic analysis" isn't arriving at all.

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%22automated+ topic+analysis%22&btnG=Google+Search [google.com]
  • by jkrise (535370) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:03AM (#15845609) Journal
    If Pro is the opposite of Con.... what'd Congress mean?

    Just playing around with some silly words... do we need to analyse what Congressmen speak, to understand their intent or motivations? Following the money would be a better option.. and we'll find a Very High Attention Span for words like money, dollars and Big Bucks..
    • by AltGrendel (175092) <ag-slashdot&exit0,us> on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:24AM (#15845674) Homepage
      I would think that both "follow the money" and this type of record analysis would be the best thing. Think of it as the money as the input and the speeches as the output.

      Correlate the two and you'd really have something.

      No, not that. What I meant was who outside of Congress is trying to push buttons, and who inside Congress is helping them. Also, you'd be able to watch for what you may consider important topics to see how they are dealt with.

      • Money = input

        Action (or inaction) in congressional committees, hidden from public view = output

        Votes on the record = optional output, only if hidden action can't accomplish desired result

        Speech on the record = optional side-effect of input, with (I would bet) only moderate correlation
    • by andrewman327 (635952) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:37AM (#15845722) Homepage Journal
      It's more complicated than simply money issues, but I agree that this study does not prove much. If congressmen want to stay in office they need votes and they need to do what they think will get them elected. If you want to know what has your elected official's attention, it is much more direct to look them up in Project Vote Smart [vote-smart.org].
    • by Whiney Mac Fanboy (963289) * <whineymacfanboy@gmail.com> on Friday August 04, 2006 @09:25AM (#15845911) Homepage Journal
      If Pro is the opposite of Con.... what'd Congress mean?

      Just 'cause I was mildly interested (I've heard that wordplay before), I read the dictionary's entries for progress [reference.com], congress [reference.com] and con [reference.com].

      And it appears con (when used in pros/cons of a decision) is different to con/com (the prefix).

      The gress suffix is from indo-european ghredh (to go) and pro & con have root meanings of advance/forward & to meet respectively.

      Progress = Forward Go.
      Congress = Meet Go.
    • Tracing the money works well for some things, but some of the hottest topics today do not involve any at all. As the article talks about, Congressional Nominations of Supreme Court Justices has slowly taken up more and more of Congress' time. If you were to follow the money trail and nothing else, topics like this would slip through the cracks.
  • by PixelPirate (984935) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:11AM (#15845636)
    Think about it: "Who thinks we should elect Joe Six-Pack"
    Lots of talk, chit-chat, chatter, etc...

    "Okay, now who would want to oppose the True American, Patriot, Love, Peace Act*"
    Cricket! Cricket!
    *And of course this Act happens to have about thirty-thousand ridders attached to it...
  • by BigNumber (457893) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:11AM (#15845637)
    So what scored the lowest? Individual freedoms? Constitutional Rights? Fair use?
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The project's goal was to track what our representatives were talking about at any given time...

    Isn't that like "Big Brother"'ing your goverment?

    I hate citizens with double morals. Leave those fine representatives alone and let them represent!
    • The US Congress spent far too much time this last session on Chinese products, which make money for China but absolutely don't affect the US (why should we care about made-in-China American flags, for instance????).

      It's obvious, Congress is NOT competitive --- they are far overpaid, not to be trusted, poor workers (excepting of course, Senators Menendez (D-NJ), Feingold (D-WI), Byrd (D-WV), and some of the reps. We must offshore their jobs to China!!!

    • It seems more like "Little Brother"ing the government. You know, that pain in the rear who always tagged along, repeated what you said, but, ultimately, who you ignored ...

      ... I'm hoping Little Brother grows up fast, but Big Brother seems to have the upper hand at the moment.
  • by jmke (776334)
    is this a double dupe by Ars AND /. ?

    http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=06/08/02/22122 7 [slashdot.org] ( http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20060802-7408 .html [arstechnica.com] )

    from the current one:
    While text mining 330,000 New York Times articles poses an interesting challenge, it's not as interesting as sifting through 70 million words (from over 70,000 unique documents) found in the Congressional Record. A team of political science researchers has done just that (PDF), and found that their software was able to answer questions
  • TheyWorkForYou.com (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bogtha (906264) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:17AM (#15845654)

    Even with a large team of grad students at their disposal, researchers find it difficult to tag more than a small subset of the speeches in question

    Are there really that many speeches? TheyWorkForYou.com [theyworkforyou.com] offer a similar service for the UK's Houses of Parliament, except it's done manually, and there's only a dozen volunteers working on it.

    • by joeljkp (254783)
      As I understand it, they're searching through the Congressional Record, not simply transcripts of congressional speeches. The CR is full of pages upon pages of stuff that doesn't get spoken anywhere, except for saying "please insert this into the Record" (or something to that effect). The CR has full text of speeches, letters, reports, amendments, textual evidence, etc.

  • by DrLang21 (900992) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:19AM (#15845660)
    The conclusion. Congress has ADD, just like me.
  • Does it take really a sophisticated tool to count the number of times "judicial" and "nominations" appearing in the same sentence?

    May be the submitter forgot to cite a little bit more impressive examples?
    • by mapkinase (958129)

      The data generating process that motivates our model is the following. On each day that
      Congress is in session a legislator can make speeches. These speeches will be on one of a finite
      number K of topics. The probability that a randomly chosen speech from a particular day will be
      on a particular topic is assumed to vary smoothly over time. At a very coarse level, a speech can
      be thought of as a vector containing the frequencies of words in some vocabulary. These vectors of
      word frequencies can be stacked togethe

  • by MarkusQ (450076) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:22AM (#15845668) Journal

    Great. Now we know what congress has been talking about.

    Big deal.

    Wake me up when you can tell me what in the hell they were thinking.

    --MarkusQ

    P.S. Other than how to make sure that they--and Joe Lieberman--get re-elected I mean.

    • Great. Now we know what congress has been talking about.
      Big deal.
      Wake me up when you can tell me what in the hell they were thinking.


      Nah, that won't ever work. You'd need to add in support to track lobbiest and funds spent towards each individual congress person. You need to also compare if they actually voted along the lines of what they presented. This sounds like its just doing something like a word count. Big whoop. You can have 2 or more sides pushing competing bills that have similiar but important di
  • by LaughingCoder (914424) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:26AM (#15845679)
    That disease that has so infected business - talking about process (how) rather than products (what) - is readily apparent in Congress as well. I added up the percentages of the "Procedural [HouseKeeping]" categories (egads, there were 6 different line items - not sure what the distinctions were), and it was 50%!!! So, for half the time Congress is talking about *how* they are going to talk about things. Ugggh. I suppose, as one who believes that the less the government does, the better, I should be happy. But oh, the global warming from all that hot air!
    • And yet they still do not have reasonable rules like forbidding riders...
    • A lot of this is substantive depate in disguise. They may literally be arguing whether Bill 1 gets an hour of debate or a day of debate, but what they're really trying to do is either kill it or give it room to breathe.
    • You'd think after 200 years they would've figured out how to do things without the continued debate but, apparently, you'd be wrong.
    • REG: Right. Now, uh, item four: attainment of world supremacy within the next five years. Uh, Francis, you've been doing some work on this.
      FRANCIS: Yeah. Thank you, Reg. Well, quite frankly, siblings, I think five years is optimistic, unless we can smash the Roman empire within the next twelve months.
      REG: Twelve months?
      FRANCIS: Yeah, twelve months. And, let's face it. As empires go, this is the big one, so we've got to get up off our arses and stop just talking about it!
      COMMANDOS: Hear! Hear!
      LORETTA: I agre
  • by jackb_guppy (204733) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:30AM (#15845689)
    The congressional record is a false document of what happened in congress. Watch C-Span one day and hear each person request "Unamious support to change or extend". This allows 30 second comment say to begainst the bill to become a 2 hr speech to supporting the bill WITHOUT editing marks.

    This program may count time on paper but can not count time that congress is actually spending.
  • The record isn't actually way they talked about...

    ...it's what they want you to THINK they talked about.

    http://www.townhall.com/columnists/JohnStossel/200 6/05/31/myths_and_lies_on_the_record [townhall.com]
  • The project's goal was to track what our representatives were talking about at any given time, and researchers were able to do it without human training or intervention.
    1. Their penis sizes
    2. Jessica Alba
    3. Angelina Jolie
    4. Pay increases for Congress
    5. Junkets
    • Shouldn't penis size be discussed twice, before and after Jessica Alba and Angelina Jolie are discussed? Things change, you know. And I'd bump "pay increases" down to 5, replaced by "baby oil." Just a thought. Whoa, look out....
      • Shouldn't penis size be discussed twice, before and after Jessica Alba and Angelina Jolie are discussed? Things change, you know.

        Why? Remember, this is congress we're talking about. The "after" discussion would provide redundant results.
        • The "after" discussion would provide redundant results.
          Are you sure they could manage? Even with the proper pharmaceuticals in place, the degenerative effects of age are considerable. I don't think "filibuster" means what you think it means.
    • 1. Their penis sizes
      2. Jessica Alba
      3. Angelina Jolie
      4. Pay increases for Congress
      5. Junkets

      s/Congress/Managers/ and I'm pretty sure that's the agenda from the last IT leadership meeting my superiors held...
  • by sgtrock (191182) on Friday August 04, 2006 @08:52AM (#15845768)
    30 years ago, I learned in my high school civics class that any Senator or Representative can insert anything he or she wants into it at any time. Examples that were pointed out to us were speeches on the floor of the Senate that were never made, modifications to committee meetings, etc. The CR is by no means an accurate measure of anything. Except maybe the size of their combined egos.
    • You're half-right there. They can get anything they want into the record without actually having to say it in front of everyone. This is good in some respects, because it allows that person to be officially on the Congressional Record on a particular point without having to tie up the time of the congressional body.

      However, they can't modify things that are already in the record (at least, not without being subjected to censure or other punishment).
  • ... "judicial nominations" have consumed steadily more Congressional attention between 1997 and 2004.

    In the U.S., there has recently been a strong focus on appointing judges who will help the rich get richer.

    -
    Operation Iraqi Liberation, OIL [wikipedia.org], has liberated Iraqi resources, not its people.
  • Cost? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    It would be really interesting to see a cost analysis on this data. How much did it cost to talk about a certain topic.

    Then everyone can get a warm fuzzy feeling about their tax dollars. :)
    • They ought to put that in the background - sort of like a taxicab meter. Use some sort of basic formula, congressional salary of those present x time etc...

      In a former job we were all billed at a fixed hourly rate. There was a computer in the corner of the conference room, so I wrote a little program... Whenever a meeting started, I'd run it and input the number of people there. It showed a running cost of the meeting. That is, of course, until I ran afoul of one management type that didn't see the

  • Congress Zeitgeist (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Speare (84249) on Friday August 04, 2006 @09:12AM (#15845850) Homepage Journal

    So in web2.0 terms, this is Google Zeitgeist meets the Statistically Improbable Phrase analysis like you see on Amazon. Find pairs or sets of words which are out of the statistical norm for English, then start to track their rise and fall among the "marketplace of ideas" in Congress. Also, on the c|net news site, they have two graph views to visualize connections between similar-topic stories or often-viewed "hot" stories.

    It would be interesting to see how many phrases are just a matter of the odd language that Congress uses. There's a stock metaphorical phrase for just about anything, and there are also a lot of phrases that are steeped in tradition which often get misunderstood by layfolk.

  • by jejones (115979) on Friday August 04, 2006 @09:13AM (#15845856) Journal
    They know, don't they, that a representative can have arbitrary text inserted in CR as if it had been read?

    Also, if you watch CSPAN while Congress is in session, in the evenings you'll see long stretches with just a few people who are delivering their rants into a nearly empty room. Can that be separated from the rest of the text?
    • They know, don't they, that a representative can have arbitrary text inserted in CR as if it had been read?

      Also, if you watch CSPAN while Congress is in session, in the evenings you'll see long stretches with just a few people who are delivering their rants into a nearly empty room. Can that be separated from the rest of the text?

      The researchers stated in the paper that the Congressional Record is "subsetted into three major components, one for the Senate and two for the House of Representatives (one of

  • Now there's a way for the slashdot editors to help pick story submissions better. They can use this technology to sift through the queue and post those hot stories quicker. :)
  • Run the search for "not a dumptruck" and "A series of tubes"!
  • Our state legislature likes to do thing the archaic way, in order to hide their dirty deals etc.

    Well, someone figured out how to scrape the PDF journals they regularly post on their web sit. Very interesting to say the least.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 04, 2006 @10:01AM (#15846096)
    You might also be interested in another topic model that not only automatically discovers topics, but also automatically discovers topic-specific groupings of the senators by their votes. http://www.cs.umass.edu/~mccallum/papers/grouptopi c_linkkdd05.pdf [umass.edu] "Group and Topic Discovery from Relations and Text."

    It uses not only word data (from the text of 16 years worth of bills voted on in the U.S. Senate), but also the senator's voting records.

    For example, you can see that Sen. Chafee (R-RI) (who was mentioned on this morning's NPR as a "liberal Republican") actually does fall into a cluster of Democrats, not fellow Republicans. When automatically discovering topics using word data alone (without the votes, as does the wustl.edu paper above) the topics on this Senate data are reasonably coherent, but the topics created by this "Group-Topic" new model are even more interesting because their discovery is driven by the need to predict the votes as well as the words. For example, "Social Security" doesn't appear in the old model, but pops out clearly in the new model because it has such a distinct voting pattern.

    Some of the other results are also pretty interesting---on Education and Domestic policy the Republicans are more split than the Democrats (forming 3 groups, to the Democrats 1 group). On other topics, the split is the other way around.

    Using the same technique, there is also an analysis of 60 years worth of voting records from the U.N. On the topic of "human rights", Nicaragua, Papua, Rwanda, Swaziland and Fiji all get clustered together---ouch!
  • I imagine that the length of time a congressman/woman talks on a subject is directly proportional to the importance of that issue to them personally.

    This would of course be subject to certain modifiers.

    - Time to next election
    - money from interested lobbyists
    - need to oppose the issues raised by competitors to keep their succes rate down.

    I'm sure if you could accuratelly calculate the above modifiers and apply them to any subject spoken about in congress you'd get an accurate prediction.
  • ... only if they can make measurements as small as planck intervals...
  • "researchers found, for instance, that 'judicial nominations' have consumed steadily more Congressional attention between 1997 and 2004."

    My interpretation: "inter-party power struggles" have consumed steadily more attention...

    Or the flip-side: "actually running the damn country" has consumed steadily less attention...

    Libertarians, rejoice. Though I feel sick.
  • I suspect the reason Congress is spending more time on judicial nominations is that in the last 20 years judges have been playing a bigger role in government. They seem to have become the final authority in the government. The balance of power seems to have shifted toward the Judiciary.
  • by carlivar (119811) on Friday August 04, 2006 @12:02PM (#15846935)
    I just finished reading John Stossel's new book (quite good, though not as good as his first). He has a section in it about the Congressional Record.

    If you think the Congressional Record is an accurate account of what happens in Congress you are dead wrong. Congressmen use taxpayer dollars to manipulate the Record because there is nothing that says they can't. They insert bogus info, like "Congressman Bob Blowhard addressed the House with a commendation for the 4-H Club of Woohah, Oklahoma". Which never really happened but it makes Senator Blowhard look good with his constituents. They also change the words of what they really said on the floor to make themselves sound better.

    Here is a blog post mentioning the problem Stossel brings up and a small excerpt [powerblogs.com]

    Carl
  • Have an attention span that is a complex of [all the things needed to get {re-)elected]. If they can support their original ideals/goals/etc. evil, good, demented or whatever, well that's a bonus.
    They can't do shit unless they get elected first, and to get elected they have to sell out, so their priotities change with the system that owns them.
  • which orifice they were talking out of?

A Fortran compiler is the hobgoblin of little minis.

Working...