The following is a guest post by Kimberly Ferguson, Specialist in Legislative Information Systems Management in the Library of Congress. Kimberly previously blogged about “Bills To Be Considered on the House Floor” Repository for In Custodia Legis.
This week’s interview is with Val Heitshusen, a legislative process expert and educator in the Congressional Research Service (CRS). Val’s contributions to Congress.gov include authoring the legislative process video script and many glossary terms.
I have been an Analyst on Congress and the Legislative Process at CRS for six years now. I’m a political scientist by training, with BA and MA degrees from Rice University and a PhD from Stanford University. After studying Congress from afar (from the perch of a political science faculty position at the University of Missouri), I came to DC in 2002 and initially taught federal executive branch employees about the legislative process. Currently, I still spend time in the classroom by teaching a graduate course in public policy at George Washington University.
How would you describe your job to other people?
I support Congress on issues of congressional procedure, practices, and organization. My assistance to Members of Congress and congressional staff includes consulting on legislative strategy, researching historical patterns of procedure, analyzing current practices and potential options, and teaching courses on House and Senate procedure. Most weeks involve a mix of writing, research, lectures, briefings, and phone and email consultations. While I still engage in some academic-style study of Congress as a political scientist, my position at CRS allows a hands-on approach to applying my expertise in legislative procedure and strategy on a daily basis. There are elements of congressional procedure that are hard to appreciate without a ringside seat, and for someone interested in the questions that I am, it doesn’t get any better.
What was your role in the development of Congress.gov?
I wrote the script explaining the legislative process in the educational video segments on the site, as well as many of the procedural terms included in the legislative glossary. I also have been working in a consultative role for the development team. I provide expertise on the legislative process and suggest options for delivering and displaying information to accurately reflect congressional procedures and to enhance user understanding of the complexities.
What is your favorite feature of Congress.gov?
Permanent URLs are a really helpful new feature; a user can directly share information about legislation or search results with others (on a website or in a blog post, for instance) rather than having to explain the steps necessary to duplicate a search from scratch. I am also very pleased that users will soon be able to simultaneously search multiple data sources (e.g., bill text and the Congressional Record).
What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the legislative process while working on Congress.gov?
I learned that many observers of the legislative process believe that the House and Senate always resolve their differences on legislation via the conference committee process, and that they are not aware that frequently this process is instead accomplished through amendment exchange. So I am very pleased that Congress.gov’s tracking graphic (indicating a bill’s status) is designed to take account of both methods of resolving chamber differences.
What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?
Before coming to DC, I also did academic research on representation in Westminster-style parliaments, a project that involved conducting personal interviews with almost 200 Members of Parliament in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. (My interest stemmed partially from my experience in college as an intern in the British House of Commons, as well as an interest in the effects on representation of different electoral systems.) The function of the legislature in a parliamentary system is very different from the role of the U.S. Congress, but I have found that understanding the role of the legislative branch in other democracies helps provide useful context and perspective when working with Congress.