You probably know your state’s Senators. You may even know your district’s Representative. But do you know their “reported bills average”? How about what schools each one attended, or how many bills they’ve co-sponsored in this, the first session of the 110th Congress? Unless your idea of a fun night involves a bottle of wine, a cozy fire and C-SPANs 1 through 3, you’re far more apt to know Hayden Panettiere’s birthday (8/21/89) or Tom Brady’s quarterback rating (137.9 seven weeks into the ’07 season) than Hillary Clinton’s Congressional attendance record (84.1 percent). And really, why should you? In an era of sound bites and single-issue voting, there’s not much incentive to be an informed citizen anymore, and even if there were, you’d need a Poli-sci degree to grasp the day-to-day events. Unless you play Fantasy Congress.
Andrew Lee says he came up with Fantasy Congress in college, after watching his roommate obsess over fantasy football, and he frames his description of Fantasy Congress in fantasy sports terms. “Think of Fantasy Congress just like fantasy football,” he says, “but instead of being a general manager of a football team, here you are the guy in the background who’s picking and choosing the members of Congress that you think are gonna do well when they reconvene. Say, for example, you choose a number of members of Congress. … It’s exactly [like] fantasy football, except the metrics aren’t touchdowns and interceptions.”
Fantasy sports make use of preexisting statistics to determine how good a player is. Politics don’t score that way, so Lee’s team had to figure that out as they went along. “When we first started, we [used] legislation,” he says. “Our users told us legislation is really boring. I can’t tell when a piece of legislation is gonna be passed, but I can tell you, however, I can see when I read a piece of news – say, for example, right now with Senator Larry Craig from Idaho. He’s in some trouble in terms of his bathroom incident. His scandal that’s going on, I can see that. I’d like to be able to score points … based off that. So we created a category for news mention. And in addition to that, you can actually see votes as they occur on C-SPAN. So people were interested in seeing votes.”
Beyond that three-stat core, fantasy leagues can track how many bills a Congressperson co-sponsors, how often he deviates from his party line and his attendance record, and the team applies a set amount of points for each stat. “Our hope is to provide a comprehensive ‘baseball card,'” Lee says. The Congressional baseball card is a politically neutral way of determining how good a politician is. “What’s the way that we know a member of Congress is actually doing their job? If they sponsor their own legislation, they probably wanna see it pass. How far did they push that legislation? When they vote against their party, that’s a big deal – it’s a pretty brave thing to do – so … we give them more points. And then … members of Congress love getting in the news, and being a good member of Congress means getting in the local news and getting in the national news. Sometimes that’s not a good thing for some people, like Larry Craig. But we’re working on the scoring metrics.”
Already, their baseball card idea is working. I can weigh my local Representative, David Price, against the one from my hometown, Shelley Berkley. Price, since he’s been around longer, sponsors more bills and manages to push an impressive 20 percent of them through committee. Berkley, however, has a much higher “Maverick” tendency, meaning she’s more likely to vote with the conservative bloc than Price. In terms of the game, I’d have to decide if Berkley’s Maverick score is enough to offset the Legislation points Price is capable of racking up, and how likely either is to get injured – or embroiled in a scandal.
And as a tool for rooting out the bad politicians of the world, it works pretty well. “There’s folks out there who’ve stayed as a member of Congress for a very long time, but they haven’t really done much,” Lee says. “In fact, they may not appear in the news a lot, they may not sponsor much legislation; they don’t even co-sponsor legislation. On a vote, they vote party line. It’s really odd. Folks like that, I think, are under-performers.” However, like in sports, it’s hard to deny there are certain intangibles that never show up in a box score. Much of a Congressperson’s work occurs not on the floor but on the phone, in terms of fundraising and browbeating colleagues, but, also like in sports, it’s difficult to track, which means Fantasy Congress‘ metrics are entirely results-based, something at least one successful American politician would appreciate.
It’s easy to see how the game can educate voters on how their elected officials represent their political attitudes. For instance, Shelley Berkley’s Maverick score tells me she’s either a Democrat in a conservative district or an elephant in donkey’s clothing. And given her ranking among Representatives with similar experience (65 of 147), I’m able to see she’s a mediocre politician, regardless of how she votes. The game’s metrics have a great way of cutting through bullshit and eliminating confusion. No amount of doubletalk can change the number of bills a Senator gets through committee in a given session.
Rewarding and codifying results, rather than cramming a politician’s platform into a 30-second infomercial, is already having a minor effect on the process in Washington. “We had one player call Representative Bart Stupak from Michigan and tell him to earn more points,” Lee says. “And we had another … who met up with Representative Gwen Moore and told her he’d really appreciate if she was more active in terms of pushing her agenda and really being able to score a lot of points on Fantasy Congress.” So even if people playing the game – 65,000 in total, many of which are high school and college students playing against their classmates – are only taking their representatives to task to score more points, at the very least, they’re holding their elected officials accountable for something. That’s in line with Lee’s goals. “Our hope has always been this grand vision of ‘If we make can politics as fun as sports and people care as much about politics as much as sports, then we have a better government,”‘ he says. “It’s trying to promote activism from the perspective that it makes an active spectator versus just one that’s really passive and sort of gives up. … The modern-day Congress right now is very much like if, instead of watching Kobe Bryant play basketball, all you saw was Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick get arrested all the time. The big difference for us is we wanna focus it back on the policy issues, back on the plays of the day, the politics of Congress. We wanna make it open to people.”
And that’s a goal the creators of the Constitution would likely have endorsed. The founding generation was uniquely literate and made liberal use of the printing press like few have since. In major cities, newspapers numbered in the dozens, each with its take on the news and heavy focus on inter-paper debate. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which shifted much of the country in favor of revolution, was distributed partially in newspapers. Now, this generation is making use of another new technology, the internet, to shift the focus back on policy. “With the power of the internet, we’re able to grab all different types of things that happen on a member of Congress,” Lee says. “Political science was not developed enough until we came along. People have tried to do certain metrics, people have tried to use technology, but we’ve been able to do it on a minute-by-minute basis.”
What about the team’s personal aspirations? Even though Fantasy Congress is politically agnostic, Lee’s team runs the political gamut (“one of us is a Democrat, one’s a Republican, one’s an independent, I think one’s apathetic, as well”), and anyone with as much interest in the process as Lee, who describes himself as a “political junkie,” must have eyes on Capitol Hill, right? “No guarantee about running for Congress, although when I was a kid, instead of wanting to be a basketball player I wanted to be a member of Congress. But I’m just weird that way,” he says. For now, he’s focusing on the fantasy version. Currently, the team’s working on an election edition. “It’s gonna be this really cool game that will hopefully change the very way that we think of elections. And then [we’re going] to continue to develop a better educational product. … There’s not enough interactivity in politics, and hopefully we can provide that.”
Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor at The Escapist. His Fantasy Congress team, Team Wide Stance, is currently in fourth place in a 15-person league.