January 6, 2018


Can Washington Be Automated? : An algorithmic lobbyist sounds like a joke. But it's already here. Here's who the robots are coming for next. (NANCY SCOLA January/February 2018, Politico)

Hatch's varied career is the longest ever for a Senate Republican; he's been a video-game critic and an advocate for the "Ground Zero Mosque," and in his four decades on Capitol Hill he has championed hundreds of bills and taken thousands of votes both obscure and important. Figuring out Orrin Hatch isn't a trivial job, even for a seasoned D.C. hand. But FiscalNote has all that data distilled, analyzed and weaponized. The display tells us that Hatch is formidable not just for his seniority, but because he's in the top 3 percent of all legislators when it comes to effectiveness--or at least he was, before he announced his impending retirement. When he throws his weight behind a bill, it's likely to become law. What's more, his effectiveness varies: It's high when the topic is health, but drops some on tech issues.

The software drills deeper. One immediate surprise it delivers is that the lawmaker most similar to Hatch's interests and patterns is Louisiana's John Kennedy, a 66-year-old Republican who's been on Capitol Hill all of 11 months. Then, with a few more clicks, it's crunching the woeful record of a shall-remain-nameless member of Congress who occupies the bottom third of legislators in the house, and who, the software dryly notes, is "fairly ineffective as a primary co-sponsor."

There's more. Much more. Hwang's system analyzes interests, not just people, and quickly summarizes everything knowable about who is trying to pass what kind of rules about the most obscure topic I can come up with on the spot: "dairy." A couple more clicks after that, and we're looking at a summarized version of a bill tackling cybersecurity that the software has considered and rendered a judgment on, when it comes to the probability that it will become law. We're not talking a rough estimate. There's a decimal: 78.1 percent.

This kind of data-crunching might sound hopelessly wonky, a kind of baseball-stats-geek approach to Washington. But if you've spent years attempting to make sense of the Washington information ecosystem--which can often feel like a swirling mass of partially baked ideas, misunderstandings and half-truths--the effect is mesmerizing. FiscalNote takes a morass of documents and history and conventional wisdom and distills it into a precise serving of understanding, the kind on which decisions are made. Here, the software is telling us that if we're looking for an up-and-coming Republican to get on board a health bill Hatch is pushing, Kennedy's a good bet. Want it bipartisan? The system will suggest likely Democratic backers, too.

If you're an aide, one of the people walking on the street outside from a power breakfast to a meeting on the Hill, there's another way to think about what FiscalNote is doing: It's doing your job.

Posted by at January 6, 2018 11:34 AM