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New Tool Aims to Counter Congressional Gridlock with Virtual Support

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, March 26 2014

Ted Henderson, a former congressional staffer and the founder of the mobile app Capitol Bells, was frustrated by the legislative gridlock on issues such as climate change and gun control.

"You could have the best policy message in the world but it's not going to go anywhere because the system is broken and corrupt," he said. His desire to "hack the system" was a motivation behind the Capital Bells app he launched last year, which he describes as "C-SPAN for your phone." A year after its launch, Henderson said around 250 members of Congress, between 6,000 and 6,500 staffers and the Capital press gallery use the app to get real-time push updates about votes on the Hill and to track legislation.

Now, he hopes to engage the broader public in to the process by launching a web platform that allows users to show support for House and Senate legislation under consideration in Congress, and share that support with their friends through social media. It can be easy for lawmakers to say, 'I'm for background checks but I'm against this bill,' Henderson suggested. "But if 90 percent of the public is for a [specific] background check bill, they can't make the same equivocation."

On the platform, users can indicate their support for a specific bill, and make a motion with their comment to post on the site and share with their friends. Users can also agree or disagree with other users' motions. They can also enter their address to see popular bills nationally and with supporters in their congressional district, and compare their views with the positions of their members of Congress. For more information on the bills, the platform links to and draws on Sunlight Foundation data to let users customize their district.

Since the platform launched March 12, the most popular bills have had to do with immigration reform and the legalization of marijuana, Henderson said.

While with the existing mobile app he said he had an audience of the "hard core political junkies and open government people," he explained that he hopes to connect the two services closer together in the future. "You need the Congressional user base for the public user base to interact with it," he said. Henderson said he expected members of Congress and advocacy groups to use the platform to help share their support for issues and to raise awareness of the site through their social media channels.

Capitol Bells is receiving funding through the Acceleprise accelerator. Henderson said he hopes to add functionality and make more data available through the platform, but is currently limited by being the only one working on the project.

This week, three House members using the platform to express their support for the House Democrats' discharge petition backing immigration reform legislation H.R. 15 are Rep. Jared Polis (D.-Colo.), also an Acceleprise mentor, Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) and Rep. Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.)

The new Capitol Bells service echoes some other tools launched in recent years. While AskThem, which allows users to post and sign questions to public officials just started last month, PopVox launched in 2010 and allows users to comment on and show support for legislation and legislative proposals as well as contact elected officials. The House Majority relaunched its Citizen Co-Sponsor Platform last year.

On PopVox, one of the most popular pieces of legislation is the "Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act of 2014," which was sponsored by Rep. David Camp (R - Mich.) and which the House passed in February. According to PopVox, 941 people wrote to Congress about the bill in the last month. In another example, PopVox indicates that 99 percent of 501 users in New York's 14th District support "Common Sense Legislation to End Gun Violence" proposed by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, though the proposal is not currently reflected in any specific piece of legislation.

On the Citizen Cosponsor Platform, the most popular piece of legislation is the "Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act," which would eliminate taxpayer financing of presidential campaigns and party conventions to pay for a 10-year pediatric research initiative. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Harper (R-Miss.), passed the House recently and has 2,624 online cosponsors.