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Why Members of Congress Miss House Votes: An Online Diary

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, December 6 2011

A news web developer's side project highlights the daily cases where members of Congress engage in a different kind of flip-flop.

A House rule allows members of Congress to announce how they would have voted, had they been present for a given vote that they missed, or to explain a change in vote — creating moments in the Congressional Record that caught the attention of Derek Willis, a web developer at the New York Times.

This past July, he launched a Tumblr microblog called "Personal Explanations," where he features the explanations that members of the House give for missing votes or changing their votes. In an email to techPresident, Willis wrote that he has a program that searches the Record for the words "personal explanation" to publish the tumblr, which he thinks picks up most of the personal explanations, and that he publishes all the items his script picks up.

The explanations are non-binding, since federal lawmakers can't change their votes after the fact. But they do make for good reading, from time to time.

One of today's updates comes from Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio), and is titled "Inadvertently Voted Aye:"

Mr. Speaker, on rollcall No. 880, a vote on H.R. 527, I inadvertently and mistakenly voted “aye” on passage of the bill, when I intended to vote “nay.” I have always stood by our working families to defend critical regulations that protect our environment and public safety, and believe that a “no” vote on final passage properly reflects my record and the priorities of my district.

- Congressional Record, Dec. 2, 2011

Frequently, his headlines highlight the very brief explanations the members of Congress give such as "Conflicting Obligation," "Unavoidably Detained," "Not Present." But the posts are also an opportunity to highlight the varying longer explanations that the representatives give, from ceremonial events such as a soldier's funeral or a change of command ceremony to inclement weather at Chicago's O'Hare airport. Rep. Bobby Shilling (R-Ill), for instance, recently opined at length about the travails of modern air travel:

Mr. Speaker, on Tuesday, November 29, 2011, due to inclement weather in Chicago, Illinois that prevented my travel, I was unable to cast my votes for rollcall Nos. 860, 861, and 862. I was originally booked on United Flight 5327 from Moline at 9:24 a.m. (CST), connecting to United Flight 610 leaving O’Hare at 11:04 a.m. (CST) and arriving in DCA at 1:53 p.m. (EST). However, I could not make these flights due to my original flight from Moline not getting into ORD until 2:43 p.m., and subsequently having 3 connecting flights being cancelled, forcing me to get on the 6:30 p.m. (CST) United 509, arriving in DCA at 10:20 p.m. (EST).

He then explained that he would have yoted yes on an immigration bill, a bill regarding a financial exemption for members of the National Guard and a bill regarding expedited security screening for armed forces members.

In an e-mail to techPresident, Willis said he was a "big Congress geek."

He explained he started the project "because [he] would see these personal explanations in the Record periodically, and it struck me that while many of them are simply boilerplate language, some of them were interesting and unusual, and I thought it would be fun to share those.

"In general there is less understanding of what members actually do, and I guess in some small way this is an attempt to shed more light on lawmakers," he later added.

"If I had really thought hard about it, I probably would have organized the posts more so that readers could easily see all of the explanations for a given member, or something similar, but that probably would have resulted in me writing a lot more code," he said, adding that he chose tumblr because it is easy to use and he could link to individual posts.

While he doesn't think the tumblr has a "huge following," he said the feedback he has gotten has been positive, though he has not yet heard from any members of Congress. "I would be pretty shocked if I did. They have pretty busy lives to lead."