Show-and-tell in Congress, starring floor charts

Charts, graphs and, occasionally, weird things that look like fourth grade science projects have proliferated in the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. When Congress is in session [an increasingly rare occurrence], and speakers want to get some attention for their pet projects and bills, the poster-board/permanent-marker industrial complex gets a major boost. And now that Congress has come back to Washington after its summer hiatus, we can expect to see a lot of these things.

Members of Congress love their visual aids—big, brightly colored poster boards that are known on Capitol Hill as “floor charts.” They’ve become a standard part of congressional speechifying, especially in the House of Representatives, where there’s a thing called “one-minute speeches,” whose enforced brevity makes visual shortcuts essential.

Some of the charts are very informative and easy to read. Others are laughably amateur looking, virtually illegible, or just plain bizarre. One of the dirty little secrets about these presentations is that they often are displayed during speeches given to a mostly empty House or Senate chamber.

Bill Gray, in his job as a producer at C-SPAN, sees them every day and observes that:

Many are about as sophisticated as the poster boards you remember in grade school. They fall into a handful of general categories — things like graphs and charts; text; photos and illustrations; memorials; and tallies.

Budget and deficit and deficit reduction and anything that has to do with hard numbers, those are the most popular because if you show a giant red line going from low to high, then it’s going to draw the number, and it’s just very simple — this number is higher than it used to be, here we go.

Who makes these things? Often, its Congressional interns. One congressional aide recently noted, in a report on NPR, that the House Republican Conference has a big printer, which makes these charts cheap to make, if not aesthetically perfect up close.

Sometimes you get the backend of a weird leftover presentation. Sometimes you get a poster board with a giant wedge taken out of it, so yeah, it varies,” he says. “The presentation via television is barely noticeable.”

In 2012, C-SPAN’s  Gray launched a Floor Chart blog, with more than 800 examples, highlighting the good, the bad, the ugly, the mundane and the weird. Here are some examples, with my commentary added:

[cincopa AkEADT7PVtpl]