Dirty Sexy Congress: Capitol Hill Gossip is Good for Democracy & Tech

Call it the House of Cards effect. For the last few days our small community on Capitol Hill has been lambasted by the voyeurs at Re/code, Vanity Fair,Gawker, and MSNBC over “horny, fratty, and nerdy” conversations about sex, race, and Donald Trump. Cloakroom is an anonymous social network used by thousands of mostly young professionals working on Capitol Hill. In a political year like this one, how can critics not be appalled that young people in government can be, well, just as crass and offensive as anyone else on social media?

These recent media reports missed an opportunity to reveal something else happening on Cloakroom that appears to be far more objectionable (and sadly rare) in Washington, DC: bipartisan debate and camaraderie. This “gossip app” is building bridges across the ever-widening partisan divide. And we are infusing technology into American democracy by combining this young internet-native Hill community with high-tech tools on our sister app, Capitol Bells, that allow constituents to track their representatives and translate their opinions into congressional code. That’s the story people should be writing.

When the right-leaning Heritage Foundation hosts an event on Capitol Hill, they don’t expect many liberals to attend, but our team of three developers on a shoestring budget is accomplishing what the multi-million-dollar No Label campaigncould only dream about in the form of aspirational press releases. Heritage Budget Director Paul Winfree conducted a Q&A for Cloakroom’s “Ask an Expert” series, and hundreds of Republicans and Democrats alike tuned in to learn about Mr. Winfree’s budget proposal, resulting in an intense back-and-forth bipartisan policy debate. When’s the last time you saw that on C-SPAN?

In a Congress that shies away from every controversial, third-rail issue, would you expect to see a Congressman Andy Harris staffer participating at a medical-marijuana legalization briefing? Yet when John Hudak from the Brookings Institution hosted his marijuana policy Q&A on Cloakroom last week, the anonymity of Cloakroom enabled legislative staff from even the most anti-pot offices to do just that.

The ability to introduce diverse and innovative policy proposals to Capitol Hill at-large is inherently valuable, but bipartisan productivity isn’t borne of wonky policy debates alone. Coalition-building depends on human relationships too. Last fall when a sexual harassment victim came to Cloakroom for advice on defending herself against her harasser, party lines didn’t prevent our community from offering her many helpful resources.Some even opened up with their own secret stories of harassment. Tech can break down the physical brick and mortar barriers between people to create more human workplaces, even in Congress.

The bipartisan success of Cloakroom bodes well for bridging the divide between Congress and voters too. Our congressional engagement app Capitol Bells is powered by high-tech tools to translate constituents’ opinions into legislative positions and measure their representation in Congress. As we integrate these tools into Cloakroom, young professionals working on Capitol Hill will have innovative new ways to tap into real-time trends in their districts and to collectively vet and promote the most promising bills introduced in the House and Senate. Just don’t be surprised when they still find time to gossip.

Reporting on congressional dalliances is great for clicks, but it’s not as sexy as the democratizing power of technology. In this case a little gossip has led to Democrats and Republicans eschewing partisan rancor to find common ground on divisive policy issues, like marijuana legalization, and to a community coalescing around a colleague in need. Tech is already breaking down the walls of hyper-partisanship, and it’s going to build bridges between Congress and voters next.