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March 22, 2012

Citizen Cosponsoring of Legislation -- Yes, There is an App for That!

By Peter Bernstein, Senior Editor

In case you missed it yesterday, U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Congressman Eric Cantor (VA-07), formally introduced not a bill but a Facebook (News - Alert) application, Citizen Cosponsor. Built on top of Facebook’s Open Graph, Citizen Cosponsor is designed to let ordinary citizens follow legislation that interests them, including access to full versions of bills, status alerts as those bills move through the legislative process and the ability to voice their opinions by becoming, as the name states, citizen cosponsors. Facebook, which is used as the login, then shares the user’s support for a bill on his or her profile.

Since this is all still in beta, visitors can only voice support for bills and cannot comment on the platform directly although this is being contemplated. And, while a work in progress, it is useful to go to the site’s homepage to watch a short video of the Congressman and find out first-hand what this is all about.

In the press release announcing the capability, Representative Cantor precisely spelled out the intent:

"We are dedicated to modernizing the way Congress connects with the American people. Citizen Cosponsor breaks ground by directly connecting people with the work the House is doing every day. With the simple click of a button, Citizen Cosponsors will become a part of the deliberative process, using the same social networks they already rely on in their everyday lives.

 "Effectively communicating with the people we represent is a fundamental responsibility of what we do as elected officials. Since I came to Congress, I have made it my priority to open the channels of communication between constituents and their Members of Congress. I am proud of the continued progress the House Republican Majority has made toward increasing transparency, visibility and participation in the legislative process."

Mashable, in its item on the subject, got some interesting background on the inspiration behind the initiative from Representative Cantor’s director of new media, Matt Lira. “We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira.  He noted that inspiration came from both sides of the aisle. In fact, Mashable cites Lira as saying he is a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions, and discussed adding more engagement to the site including such things as online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables.

There are other interesting quotes from Lira, including his desire to finding ways to be inclusive of ideas from Democrats. “We are looking for ways to work with [the Democrats]…It’s a two-sided coin, but as it grows that’s something that interests me. I’m optimistic that will be the case, but we’ll see.”

This being political craziness season in the U.S. in an already hotly partisan environment, critics were quick to pounce on what they viewed as the slanted nature of the launch which they implied was not a good omen.   As reported in the Huffington Post, with only one bill sponsored by a Democrat on the launch site and with the creators having taken license with language used to describe the bills that were there, the politically influential TalkingPointsMemo site noted that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer's (D-Md.) press office tweeted at Cantor's team: "We like the idea of Citizen CoSponsor, but why did you re-write the bill titles and descriptions in an entirely partisan way?"

Put the guns back in the holsters

It is dismaying that everything in Washington, D.C., and I am beginning to think this applies to even pronouncements about whether the sky is blue are not, becomes the immediate object of derision by somebody for some reason. Plus, partisanship aside, I remember when, as a young lobbyist, I witnessed the bickering over C-SPAN when it was launched. The howls that went up from Representatives and Senators about the potential abuse of the platform, concern over who would control the cameras and whether they should be allowed to pan the chambers during debate when the chambers are mostly empty, were intense. The fear that constituents might actually see how Congress works and get disgusted -- although with an eight percent favorable rating in the polls at the moment it is hard to imagine a deeper level of disgust -- was palpable and the subject of constant discussion.

The reality is that C-SPAN has become a valuable tool for voters to see democracy in action with all of its warts, and no member of Congress even thinks about the fact that the camera is on and never blinks. It is very unfortunate that Representative Cantor has taken a really good idea, the further democratization of the legislative process by leveraging online capabilities, and gotten it off to a bumpy and unnecessarily auspicious start.  

One can only hope that cooler heads prevail and that the platform is not hijacked for partisan or special interest reasons. This is actually a good and much needed idea if it can be executed as it should be in the name of the public good. As former Vice President Al Gore remarked a few weeks ago it seems time for the online world to “take back democracy.” A bit strident to say the least, but what politician has not been prone to hyperbole. The point about giving more people more of a voice is nevertheless well-taken if a bit bombastic.  

It will be fascinating to see where all of this goes. However -- repeat after me -- one can only hope!

Edited by Rich Steeves
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