- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

Fantasy leagues aren’t just for football anymore. True political junkies can now create their own dream team of lawmakers and compete with fellow enthusiasts over who can pick the most successful team.

“Fantasy Congress,” dreamed up last year by four students at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif., allows players to select four senators and 12 House members for their teams. Points are determined by the number of bills introduced by a respective member of Congress and how far those bills go through the legislative process. Competing players can decide to play for money or simply for sport.

According the group’s Web site, “By inspiring people to care about government as much as they care about sports, Fantasy Congress hopes to encourage government transparency and responsibility while educating the governed.” Or, as the Web site also notes, “Fantasy Congress is more than just a totally sweet game.”

Started with $5,000 in seed money from the university, the Fantasy Congress Web site now claims to have more than 50,000 users. And like any other buzz-worthy product, imitators are beginning to emerge.

Minnesota Public Radio online editor Bob Collins has created a spinoff Web site exclusively focused on his state’s legislature.

“The only thing that’s fantasy about it is that there are teams,” Mr. Collins said. He said that one major difference between his site and Fantasy Congress is that he is using it to measure the ability to get people interested in local politics through nontraditional outlets. “It’s important to figure out how people are consuming information differently,” he said.

According to the Web site, no monetary rewards are at stake, only “the worldwide respect of political wonks.”

Mr. Collins has limited outside participation in the game, which was designed by himself on a spreadsheet and basic HTML Internet coding. Nonetheless, the site receives about 500 to 600 page views a day. “I spent my New Year’s Eve working on it,” he joked.

There are some clear discrepancies in the Fantasy Congress formula. Much like in professional sports, it can be difficult to measure a lawmaker’s impact, which is not always determined simply by the volume of introduced legislation.

For instance, Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, was instrumental in galvanizing the antiwar elements of his party before last November’s election. However, he had a mere 36 points for the last session of Congress, according to the Fantasy Congress Web site.

Conversely, Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican, has been ridiculed by critics across the political spectrum for his “bridge to nowhere” legislation. Yet, Mr. Young was last session’s top Fantasy Congress lawmaker, with 2,041 points.

Still, the game has become so popular there has even been talk of starting up the equivalent of Fantasy Congress leagues in other countries. During a visit to Claremont McKenna last year, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said, “That would be great,” when asked about the idea of creating a “Fantasy Knesset.”

Of course, it’s probably little more than fantasy to imagine what is in essence an online gambling forum serving as a catalyst for political activism. But that hasn’t stopped some enthusiastic players from dreaming. “The irony? This may someday replace fantasy sports. The stakes and payoffs are so much higher. It’s not even funny,” blogger Scott Thill recently wrote on the Huffington Post Web site.

An e-mail release from the Fantasy Congress Web site says they hope to have the latest version of the game, with updated members of Congress, available by Friday.

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