How Floor Charts Became Stars Of Congress

Jul 23, 2013
Originally published on July 23, 2013 11:26 am

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.

"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.

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