Articles From November 2010
During the first month of the POPVOX beta launch, I have received several emails from POPVOX users about whether there is value in building support for a bill in the coming weeks when there is little chance it will make progress during the Lame Duck session. Many of these users feel strongly about a specific issue but are realistic -- and know that their concern might not be a priority in Congress any time soon.
Take S. 1579, the Restore Our American Mustangs Act , for example. Before a POPVOX user brought this bill to my attention, I honestly didn't know about it. The legislation aims to improve the management and health of wild free-roaming horses. The bill passed the House, but hasn't moved in the Senate this Congressional session.
This was my suggestion to the user: Despite the fact that this bill hasn't moved in the Senate and the session is almost over, it's still important to build support for the bill. Now is a great time to inform your friends, family and community about important legislative issues so when the new Congress begins its session in January, the groundwork has been laid for the reintroduction of the bill. POPVOX will archive all comments made on bills pending in the 111th Congress (the 2-year “session” that began in January 2008 and will end in the coming weeks) so that a record remains. This record of constituent comments will be useful for policymakers, staffers and media as bills are introduced next year.
The painful truth about moving legislation through Congress is this: if a bill doesn't become a law in a session, it has to start over. It has to be reintroduced in both the House and the Senate, go through the committee process and come to a vote before the floor of each Congressional body. In addition, bills sponsored by Members that will not be returning to Congress will need to be introduced by a new sponsor.
By garnering support for a bill now, supporters alert Congressional sponsors (or potential sponsors) of the bill, and they in turn are more likely to introduce it early on in the two-year session. Early introduction gives advocates and supporters more time to build additional support and secure more cosponsors of the bill, which increases the bill’s chance of passage. In most cases, a bill with strong support from advocacy groups, the public and Members of Congress is far more likely to move through the committee process and to a floor vote.
When I learned about the Restore Our American Mustangs Act, I brought it to the attention of friends of mine that care about horses. None of them had ever heard about the bill. The reality is that most people don't know about the vast majority of bills before Congress. I hope that will change through POPVOX.
I am working to incorporate my lessons learned from years as an advocate and lobbyist into tools available to everyone on POPVOX. In the meantime, if you have questions about advocacy or strategy to move bills through Congress, please do drop me a note at email@example.com. I am sure there are others wondering the same thing!
Since we get a lot of questions, here are some resources on the legislative process:
From the House Parliamentarian: “ How Our Laws Are Made ” - A n excellent resource and refresher for anyone seeking to understand the process from start to finish. (Am just sorry that I cannot find the person to credit with re-posting this link on Twitter a few days ago. If you are the one, let me know so I can add a h/t!
Schoolhouse Rock - How a Bill Becomes a Law , (Because it’s just a classic.) Great chart illustrating the lawmaking process by Mike Wirth and Dr. Suzanne Cooper Guasco (winner of Sunlight Labs’ 2010 “Design for America” contest.)
“ Who Writes Our Law s” (CTO Josh Tauberer and I address a reader’s question over at GovTrackInsider.)
And I thought this was a really good post on the same topic over at PoliticsUnder30.org: http://www.politicsunder30.org/2009/featured/who-writes-these-thousand-page-bills
Have other suggested resources? Please share in comments.
From time to time, the POPVOX founding team will share some tips and background we have learned throughout our experience or that we learn from those using the site. If you have tips or comments you would like to share, or questions you would like to have answered, please share at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members of Congress only want to hear from constituents (no one else.)*
This is one of the first, most important rules of legislative advocacy. If you have an opinion to share, a request to make, or a question to ask, address your Representative or Senator.
For many individuals, this can sometimes be frustrating, especially if their own Member does not share their view or party or is not a member of a committee with jurisdiction over the issue in question.
This frustration causes many people to send their message to another legislator whom they feel will be more receptive to their concerns. These messages usually begin with, "I know I am not in your district, but I live in your state..." or "You must listen to me because I am a citizen of the United States of America..." or "I am writing to you because my own Senator won't listen." Some of these letters or emails may then go on to make extremely valid points or share touching personal stories, but they will not reach their intended recipient.
The staffer processing letters and other correspondence in the receiving office (usually called a Legislative Correspondent) will automatically pull any that reflect addresses outside the district (or state, for Senators) and forward the correspondence to the correct office. This is known as “professional courtesy.” That means that correspondence addressed to the incorrect office will not be read by the Member of Congress and probably not even read by the staffer sorting the mail.
Does this mean that legislators are solely focused on those who can re-elect them? Well, that is one interpretation, but there are some good reasons for the practice:
- Focus on constituents - Members of Congress are essentially the “customer service” department for their districts. They have a set amount of resources and staff to handle incoming requests and statements. Any diversion of resources to process or respond to requests from outside the district necessarily means less attention can be paid to the constituents that they are in office to represent.
- Franking restrictions - 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. Members’ franking limitations are set based on the number of people in their state or district, so that expenditure of resources to respond to non-constituent requests could compromise the ability to respond to actual constituents. In addition, Franking laws restrict Members’ from sending mass mailings outside their district. These laws are designed to minimize the electoral incumbent advantage that comes from the free access to official communications channels.
So what should you do if you have an opinion to share that you feel should be heard by someone who is not your Representative or Senator?
- Express your opinion to your legislator anyway . Sometimes minds change. Usually the best way to get your point acros is to tell a personal story that illustrates your point. With POPVOX, that story does not just go into the “black box” of legislative correspondence system. You can share your comment via Facebook, Twitter, or email, and ask others to weigh in on the issue. If you are able to show that more people in your district share your opinion, you will increase the chance of affecting the way your legislator thinks about the matter.
(One of the motivating factors behind the creation of POPVOX was the moving testimonials and heartfelt opinions that come into Capitol Hill that are not be shared with a wider audience. Since comments on POPVOX are public and searchable, those that strike a chord or make a particularly salient point can be shared and read by all, and may rise to get the attention of those key legislators that would otherwise not receive the message if it were simply sent to their office.)
- Write a letter to your local newspaper or post on local blogs. Refer your friends and neighbors to the local stories and opinions on POPVOX. Soon we will make it possible for media to contact commenters through their POPVOX profile (we will never give out your name or email without your permission) to conduct an interview or get background.
- Build support in the districts or states of key legislators. If there is a key committee member or whose vote is crucial, then your best bet is to show that his or her constituents agree with your position. Maybe it’s time to tap into that alumni directory or reach out to your cousins’ cousin in a committee chair’s district. We designed POPVOX so that you can see sentiment and comments at the district and state level -- and so that the committee chair’s local newspaper and blogs are able to see what people are saying back home.
* This is a discussion about legislative advocacy and interactions with a Member's legislative office. As a general rule, campaign staff and campaign offices are happy to accept donations from people in any district.
Can We the People Use the Internet to Make Congress Smarter? in techPresident
POPVOX Translates the Voice of the People Into the Language of Congress
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 17, 2010
Contact: Rachna Choudhry 202-256-4326, email@example.com
WASHINGTON, DC – With angel backing from Silicon Valley icon Tim O'Reilly and deep experience on Capitol Hill, a new company, POPVOX, today announces its beta to begin bridging the gap between the input the public wants to provide to Congress, and the information Members of Congress need to receive.
"Constituent communications are overwhelming Congressional offices," says POPVOX CEO Marci Harris, who has first-hand experience as a Congressional staff member. "Members of Congress really do want to hear what constituents have to say. Unfortunately, today’s communication tools dramatically increase the ability to generate messages going in to Congress without helping Congress handle the influx. The increasing emails, Tweets, Facebook comments, petitions, form letters, faxes, etc. are having the unintended effect of turning genuine citizen engagement into unintelligible noise.”
POPVOX solves this problem by providing a platform for citizen communication with Congress — letting Congressional staff know that the people contacting them are located in their district, channeling activity to bills pending before Congress, and providing data dashboards to identify which organizations are weighing in on each side of any issue. POPVOX helps advocacy organizations highlight their work on specific legislation, increase their visibility on Capitol Hill and easily identify potential partners. Additionally, POPVOX provides a curating interface for anyone — including the public and the media — to access and understand the voice of the people.
"Many grassroots campaigns don’t take into account that Members of Congress have limited ability to respond to general expressions of outrage or support. They can introduce, co-sponsor, or vote yes or no on a bill. That's about all they can realistically do," continues CEO Marci Harris. "By focusing the POPVOX platform on pending legislation and not general 'issues,' and making comments on POPVOX public, searchable and sortable by anyone, we are able to turn constituent voices into something that a legislator can actually use.”
Founding Advisor and financial backer Tim O'Reilly says, "POPVOX brings a unique blend of Capitol Hill savvy and Silicon Valley technology to the problem of measuring and managing advocacy. You can think of it as a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations."
In less than a month of pre-beta, POPVOX has already attracted the attention of individuals, Congressional staff and advocacy organizations across the country - having been used in efforts ranging from those opposing H.R. 4646: Debt Free America Act to those supporting H.R. 676: Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act to the Association of Flight Attendants using POPVOX to build support for H.R. 915: FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009. Several bills slated for consideration during the lame duck Congressional session have been the focus of user comments, including H.R. 1751: American Dream Act and H.R. 3458: Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009. The POPVOX team is strongly encouraging advocacy organizations to sign up before the end of the year, as it anticipates playing a major role in 2011 as the 112th Congress begins their term in January.
POPVOX is a nonpartisan corporation. For more information about the company, its founders, and its philosophy, visit http://www.popvox.com/about
POPVOX tries to bring the voice of the people into Congress in gov20.govfresh
(For media inquiries, please contact Marci Harris, POPVOX’s CEO, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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