How Floor Charts Became Stars Of Congress

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) always has a floor chart with her on the House floor to help her tally the number of days without passage of a jobs bill. i i

hide captionRep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) always has a floor chart with her on the House floor to help her tally the number of days without passage of a jobs bill.

http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) always has a floor chart with her on the House floor to help her tally the number of days without passage of a jobs bill.

Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) always has a floor chart with her on the House floor to help her tally the number of days without passage of a jobs bill.

http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/

Watch C-SPAN long enough, and you'll see members of Congress using visual aids: big, brightly colored poster boards, known on Capitol Hill as floor charts.

They've become an essential part of congressional messaging.

Almost every day the House of Representatives is in session, lawmakers line up to give what are known as one-minute speeches. Florida Democrat Frederica Wilson is always there.

And she always has her floor chart with her. It displays the number of days since Wilson came to Congress and the number of Americans unemployed.

Floor Chart Sampler

Many of the big poster boards are about as sophisticated as those you'd see in grade school. Here are some of the best — and worst.

"When you are in the minority, you have to find ways to get your message across because there's no other way. You don't have a bill that they're going to hear. There's no committee that will receive your suggestions," Wilson says.

She's been reusing the same chart since February, just swapping out the number of days in red type. Some members have dozens of them, ready to go at a moment's notice. Indiana Republican Rep. Todd Rokita has a whole stack of charts in his office, leftover from a lengthy presentation he gave back in April on the national debt. Back then, he offered a bar chart showing budget deficits through the years, with pictures of presidents on top of each bar. If you had seen it on C-SPAN, occasionally you'd see a hand come into the shot, switching to the next chart. That is Zach Zagar, Rokita's communications director.

"I was Vanna White on the House floor, one beautiful night this spring," Zagar says.

So how exactly do these things get made?

First the content: These are actually just PowerPoint slides from a presentation Rokita often gives when he's back home in his district — printed real big for use on the House floor.

"The House doesn't quite have a PowerPoint projector on the floor," says Zagar. "So this is what we get."

There are a couple of nice ones, made expertly and mounted by the House graphics office. But most in this stack are just printed on giant sheets of paper, then wrapped around and taped onto previously used poster boards. Zagar says 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."

A little secret about Congress that may not be obvious watching on TV: Often when members give these speeches, the room is virtually empty. But that doesn't really matter, because the cameras are always rolling.

Bill Gray is a producer at C-SPAN, and a man so obsessed with floor charts he's created a blog to catalog their use.

"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," Gray says.

But perhaps the most popular floor chart of all time (though, admittedly, this is hard to gauge) was used by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa back in 2009.

Here's how he described that chart at the time: "the rising cost of health care as a massive fire-breathing debt and deficit dragon."

That's right. The debt and deficit dragon — a gray fire-breathing dragon, labeled with yellow Olde English-style print on a blue background. It got a lot of attention, which is exactly what Grassley says he's going for.

"I think they're very beneficial, probably more to the public at large than they are to our colleagues," Grassley says.

At this point, a taxpayer might wonder how much these charts cost. In reality it varies, from an estimated $10 for the giant-printer-used-poster-board method to, well, no one would say how much it costs to get one of the fancy charts made by the House and Senate graphics offices. Something comparable made by a national printing chain would cost $129 per chart. But everyone insists they aren't spending that much.

A Floor Chart Sampler

Scroll through the blog Senatecharts and you'll see a range of the kinds of charts and props lawmakers — in both chambers — have used on the floor and in committee. Many are about as sophisticated as the "poster boards you remember in grade school," says blog founder Bill Gray. They fall into a handful of general categories — things like graphs and charts; text; photos and illustrations; memorials; and tallies. Below are some other categories that caught our eye.

  • Some floor charts show off an artistic side.

    Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) with a debt and deficit dragon floor chart. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) with a debt and deficit dragon floor chart.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • Others prefer more realism.

    Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) with a floor chart featuring a photo of a snake. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) with a floor chart featuring a photo of a snake.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • There's also dueling day-counting charts, including this one criticizing Senate Republicans.

    Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) tallies up the days since the Senate passed a budget. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
    Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) tallies up the days since the Senate passed a budget.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
  • And this one criticizing Senate Democrats.

    Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), with a chart on the budget. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
    Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), with a chart on the budget.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
  • Some beg for a caption.

    Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) with a photo poster at a hearing. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) with a photo poster at a hearing.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • Some answer difficult questions.

    A chart from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) explains what qualifies as manufacturing. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    A chart from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) explains what qualifies as manufacturing.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • We'll leave this one to your imagination.

    Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and a floor chart of a bug. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and a floor chart of a bug.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • The handwritten category is pretty no frills.

    Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) with a handwritten floor poster. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) with a handwritten floor poster.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • This is the battle at Gettysburg. Really.

    Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) draws the battle at Gettysburg. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) draws the battle at Gettysburg.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • And this is so no frills that there's not even an easel.

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) holding a floor chart without the help of an easel. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) holding a floor chart without the help of an easel.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com/
  • Another no frills category is the text-only floor chart. No fancy photos or drawings here.

    A floor chart lists the "top 10 reasons why young Americans need a change in leadership." i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    A floor chart lists the "top 10 reasons why young Americans need a change in leadership."
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • Some charts show a real flair for self-promotion.

    Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) wants to hear from you. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) wants to hear from you.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
  • And some seem like an intern wasn't supervised closely enough.

    Former Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) holds a "rubber stamp" prop created mostly out of paper. i i
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com
    Former Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) holds a "rubber stamp" prop created mostly out of paper.
    http://senatecharts.tumblr.com

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