Fan Mail from the Congress on New Tools for Citizens Interaction Article

By Peter Bernstein July 20, 2012

All of us who write for a living love to get reactions from our readers. For one thing, it means we have them. Plus, good or bad, it also means that we have done our job of not just informing but of stirring interest. 

Thus, it was with more than a modicum of delight that an article I wrote on July 19, “U.S. House of Representatives Democrats Adopt New Tools to Enable More Citizen Interactions,”  caught the attention of the office of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor for my mention of his Citizen Cosponsor initiative and the Office of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer whose POPVOX.com efforts caused me to take a look at all of this in the first place.

For your reading pleasure

While you can read the comments on the original article, I thought you’d enjoy the emails I got. After all transparency is a beautiful thing.

First to check in were the Hoyer folks:

Hi Peter,

Thanks for covering the new online tool Whip Hoyer announced yesterday. I read your concerns about the usefulness of the tools, so wanted to pass along some background information that might address those concerns.

We chose POPVOX for two reasons: 1) it covers every bill introduced in the House (unlike Mr. Cantor’s Citizen Co-Sponsor, which only includes nine bills); and 2) it’s non-partisan – people vote for and against bills, organizations post letters for and against them – so we think it serves as a more neutral source of information (especially compared to Mr. Cantor’s site, where staff rewrite bill summaries in a partisan way to slant outcomes). Obviously no one site is perfect, but we think POPVOX makes a good effort at giving people all opinions of legislation, and then lets them weigh in themselves.

Thanks,
Mariel 
Mariel Saez
House  Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (MD)
mariel.saez@mail.house.gov

Not long after came this from the Congressman Cantor’s person:  

Comparing Citizen CoSponsors to DemCom is like comparing a Ferrari to a Yugo.  

Your commentary on the importance of DATA.gov, et al is spot-on; broader efforts to open government data are critically important.  We the People is a great platform from the Executive Branch; it is a very exciting beginning, and a precedent that I hope is continued and expanded in future Administrations for years to come.

Best,
Matt
Matt Lira
Digital Director
Majority Leader Eric Cantor
www.MajorityLeader.gov

In the name of full disclosure, I am a registered Independent. Rather than bore you with what were rather long thank you notes to Mariel and Matt, I can tell you that the gist of my remarks were that I really had not set out to create platform for controversy as to “mine is better.”  I informed my two fans that we have had more than enough of that.  

What bothered me about all of this is what still bothers me now that the love letters have arrived.   Congress should be using technology for the public good, and that good from my perspective is to: 

  • Inform citizens in a completely non-partisan way about legislation, and have them actively involved as bills become laws. This means hopefully not just having their voices posted but seeing them have impact. 
  • See an effort that is devoid of partisan suspicion that can give people a voice online that is compelling enough to make them register to vote if they have not, and then have everyone do so because that is what democracy is really all about. I added, with a bit of explanation, why I feel this is the best way to honor our  troops for their service. 

What I said was that Citizen’s CoSponsors or DemCom, particularly since they appear to be competing as the emails certainly imply, in reality now appear to speak to narrow audiences. I feel, as an impartial observer that this not only looks like “the converted talking to the convinced,” but that the inability to draw truly massive participation would render any type of sentiment counting anecdotal at best but more realistically self-serving and not exactly a way to engender trust in an institution that most people see as untrustworthy.

I think the real lesson here comes from Abraham Lincoln who on June 16, 1858 accepted his party’s nomination to be the first Republican candidate for President noted a familiar statement by Jesus that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  The now late Rodney King said it in much the same way, “Can’t we all just get along?”

I can’t wait to see wait to hear back from my new friends.




Edited by Amanda Ciccatelli
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