Yesterday, House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, introduced "Citizen Cosponsor," which he personally describes in a video on www.majorityleader.gov as "an innovative way for you to stay in touch with your Member of Congress, to be engaged in the legislative process, and to make sure you're speaking out on the issues that are of particular concern for you." (emphasis added.) The video encourages you to "sign in with Facebook" and Leader Cantor continues, "Co-sponsor the bills that you support, we'll keep you informed, and you'll be engaged throughout the legislative process." The application uses Facebook Open Graph to help people follow the progress of bills that they "co-sponsor."
As a former Congressional staffer, I understand the immense challenges at all levels within a system that -- let's face it -- is in the status quo business. I am extremely hesitant to criticize any effort with a stated mission of increasing individual involvement and understanding of the legislative process. In this case, however, there are important questions to be asked, and I list them here with the hope that they will be addressed and the laudable mission of the Citizen Cosponsor project reached.
In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don't even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible -- just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.
Critical Questions about Citizen Cosponsor
With the new effort, there are several concerning issues that need to be addressed by its sponsors:
- Is YOUR Member really in the loop? Second, when Majority Leader Cantor says (in the video) the platform will help you "stay in touch with your Member of Congress", does it actually mean that your feedback will be provided to the Member of Congress who represents you? This is enormously important, because there is one kind of advocacy that we know works: constituents contacting their own Member of Congress who works for and is dependent on a vote from them. The Majority Leader seems to indicate in the video that when an individual weighs in as a citizen cosponsor, that the individual's Member of Congress will be contacted -- though that doesn't actually seem to be the case. In this way, the site is potentially circumventing effective advocacy -- and inserting the House's partisan Caucus leadership in the middle of the relationship between constituent and Congressional representative.
- Are "Updates" neutral or partisan talking points? The site allows for those "cosponsoring" and "tracking" bills to receive updates that are not defined. Will these updates be managed by the Majority Leader's office? If so, are they partisan messages from the Republican Caucus or will they be couched as updates from the institution of "Congress"? Is the project being managed by the House Majority Leader 's communications staff, new media, or by policy staff?
- Whose list is it building? Will Members of Congress be provided with contact information so that they can respond to their constituents? Is the Majority Leader's office placing itself in a position to act as a filter for messages coming in from constituents to other Members of Congress?
- "I endorse this bill that the Majority Leader endorses" The current format only allow for "cosponsorship," so -- only expressions of support. How useful is the information if the Majority Leader's office simply picks a sample of bills (in this case, six bills) and the only input possible is an indication of support or "cosponsorship"? Will the only possible conclusion be "X individuals endorse this bill supported by House Leadership a little more than they endorse another bill supported by House Leadership"?
Time to revisit the old rules?
Few outside the wonktastic world of Congress understand the role of the Franking Commission, which exists to limit the inherent incumbent advantage in the use of official resources for contacting members of the public. (I beat this drum a lot, most recently in a blog post on why Congress Only Wants to Hear from Constituents.) Members of Congress are given a powerful tool in the Congressional Franking Privilege, which allows them to send messages and respond to constituent inquiries through the U.S. Postal Service or over official email addresses. Franking restricts mass mailings outside their district -- limiting the electoral incumbent advantage of ambitious Members who might want to lay the groundwork for future senatorial or presidential run by using official resources to reach people outside his or her district.
Franking regulations were appropriately relaxed to great fanfare to allow Congress to use social media, thanks to the work of the Open House Project and the "Let our Congress Tweet" campaign by the Sunlight Foundation. (For a full history of the open government data movement, see Open Government Data, by POPVOX co-founder Joshua Tauberer.) However, as Members of Congress are increasingly empowered through social media to build large lists and reach people beyond their districts through "official" accounts, the old concerns about incumbent overreach may merit review.
Hey -- we've been there.
These are not uncomplicated issues, and it is not necessarily a reflection of bad intentions that these were not addressed on Day 1. In many cases, we have weighed similar questions in the building and rollout of POPVOX over the past eighteen months. We strive everyday to provide a neutral platform for all voices to be heard on every bill in Congress -- for those messages to be delivered as efficiently as possible to the appropriate Member of Congress, and for the input to be transparent, verified, and quantified in a way that empowers the Voice of the People.
Release early, Fail fast.
As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, "if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you've launched too late." In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: "As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step - there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress."
Lira and others like Alexander Howard have rightly noted that, "We are in Open Government's beta period."
Consider this customer feedback for the beta and three cheers for the goal of "a modernized Congress."
*I eventually gave up on the internal attempt and left Congress in February 2010, to join Rachna Choudhry and Joshua Tauberer in building POPVOX outside of the partisan limitations of Congress.