Bypassing the Gatekeepers of Congress *Without Their Permission*

The Internet “allows awesome ideas to win because people like them, not because some gatekeeper said so.” — Alexis Ohanian, Without Their Permission.

On Reddit a wild sketcher can become a star, at a special ed teacher can become a life changing philanthropist, and through Tumblr an unemployed recent college grad can hijack a national debate. The most powerful platforms across the Internet are those that cede control to the people and dismiss the notion of gatekeepers. As the web is democratizing nearly every aspect of our society from angel investing to pop culture, isn’t it ironic that the reins of democracy itself remain firmly in the hands of old institutionalists? After reading Without Their Permission I realized that I have already been designing Capitol Bells as a platform that helps everyone circumvent the gatekeepers of politics. I think that’s pretty exciting.

Two weeks ago I began the next phase of Capitol Bells — “Motions” — with major help from Brian Painter, a bad ass developer from South Carolina. Soon, Capitol Bells will let anyone lead legislative lobbying campaigns, personally gauge their representatives’ performance based on real congressional actions (not hype!), and even become political leaders and declare candidacy in their own communities — all without anyone’s permission. By combing social networking with user voting on bills, Capitol Bells has the potential to bypass every type of political gatekeeper: party leaders, media pundits, campaign contributors, lobbyists, you name it.

The SOPA protest was a huge inspiration for me as a cynical congressional staffer to see that Congress really is accountable to the public. I want to witness that happen again and again by facilitating a system of constant public feedback and accountability. Congress’s first job is to work for us. I look forward to demonstrating how Capitol Bells says no to political gatekeepers and yes to winning ideas from you and me.

Capitol Bells is going bicameral!

Quick update, Capitol Bells now includes the Senate. The big update is currently under review by Apple's app store, and it should be freely available for download any day now. If you can't wait, you can check out a demo here on - the real version looks better than this though.

The Senate side of Capitol Bells has all the same functionality as the existing House side app.  One important difference between the two versions for you floor wonks out there is that this version does natively scrape for current bills under consideration. Instead, it uses the Sunlight Foundation's API for "Upcoming Bills," which they scrape for updates every fifteen minutes.

If you would rather follow the Senate than the House, you can open up the setting menu from either side of the app and choose you "default."

I hope Capitol Bells is as popular in the Senate as it is in the House!

Reppin' in the USA

Here's a sneak peek at the personal representative page for users. Capitol Bells will match the number of votes you and your Member agree on and displays it as a vote score. While you're checking that out, you can call your Member right from the app, or just tweet him or catch up on Facebook. 

One thing I am excited about is the Rep page's Twitter stream. It displays the most current tweets from your Representative. Right below it shows the most current tweets sent to your Rep using the hashtag of your district, for instance #TX06 for Texas's 6th Congressional District.

Have anymore cool ideas? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. This guy just discovered the heater.

A model idiot? Representative democracy for the social network age.

I'm a bit of an idiot to worry too much about what to write here. You're probably reading this to learn more about my work on Capitol Bells. Accordingly, in this post I'll outline my model for constituent engagement, and how we can use it to rally our friends on important stuff.

The "game" of Capitol Bells is relatively simple. There are officials and users (that's you), and they each belong to a district (that's where you live). Officials can cosponsor bills at any time and can vote on bills if they reach the Floor (I'm talking real world). Capitol Bells users can vote on any bill at any time. Uniquely, users can also vote on a bill by approving a "motion."

"Motions" are a fancy way of asking your friends to vote your way on a bill.  Motions can be created to either support or oppose any bill. The creator (you) adds a headline - less than 100 characters - and may attach a hyperlink (hopefully a substantive resource - but that's your call).  Approving a supporting motion adds an upvote on the user's behalf; approving an opposing motion downvotes the bill for the user. Because motions will be available via web app, anyone can share links for them anywhere - Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc.

A fun twist I am playing with is giving clout points to active users. For instance, you could get one point for every bill you vote on. You could also get a point when a friend joins a motion you shared with her, and a half a point for each or her friends who join. We could run leader boards of the most active and influential constituents in a district by clout points.  Maybe those power users could even decide to publicly share their own virtual voting profiles, and offer themselves up as candidates for Congress....

And check this out... Unbelievable, right?

Taps like countable shouts.

I didn't know exactly what I was getting into when I started Capitol Bells. Since I don't know what I'm doing starting a blog either I'll start from the top.

I've been the intern answering the hourly, repeat calls of a select few crazies and taking constituents on tours. I've been the guy who goes through all the incoming district correspondence (calls, letters, e-mails, and faxes) to tally them up by issue and make sure they get a form letter response a few weeks or months down the line. And I've taken the meetings of the special interest groups and lobbyists (Time Warner's SOPA guy was my all time favorite).