We’ve added a new feature to OpenCongress. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t use D3 or integrate with social media. But we still think it’s pretty cool. You might’ve already heard of it.
This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s been a long time coming. A lot of people are surprised to learn that Congress doesn’t have publicly available email addresses. It’s the number one feature request that we hear from users of our APIs. Until recently, we didn’t have a good response.
That’s because members of Congress typically put their feedback mechanisms behind captchas and zip code requirements. Sometimes these forms break; sometimes their requirements improperly lock out actual constituents. And they always make it harder to email your congressional delegation than it should be.
This is a real problem. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, 88% of Capitol Hill staffers agree that electronic messages from constituents influence their bosses’ decisions. We think that it’s inappropriate to erect technical barriers around such an essential democratic mechanism.
Congress itself is addressing the problem. That effort has just entered its second decade, and people are feeling optimistic that a launch to a closed set of partners might be coming soon. But we weren’t content to wait.
So when the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) approached us about this problem, we were excited to really make some progress. Building on groundwork first done by the Participatory Politics Foundation and more recent work within Sunlight, a network of 150 volunteers collected the data we needed from congressional websites in just two days. That information is now on Github, available to all who want to build the next generation of constituent communication tools. The EFF is already working on some exciting things to that end.
But we just wanted to be able to email our representatives like normal people. So now, if you visit a legislator’s page on OpenCongress, you’ll see an email address in the right-hand sidebar that looks like Sen.Reid@opencongress.org or Rep.Boehner@opencongress.org. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org to email both of your senators and your House representatives at once.
The first time we get an email from you, we’ll send one back asking for some additional details. This is necessary because our code submits your message by navigating those aforementioned congressional webforms, and we don’t want to enter incorrect information. But for emails after the first one, all you’ll have to do is click a link that says, “Yes, I meant to send that email.”
One more thing: For now, our system will only let you email your own representatives. A lot of people dislike this. We do, too. In an age of increasing polarization, party discipline means that congressional leaders must be accountable to citizens outside their districts. But the unfortunate truth is that Congress typically won’t bother reading messages from non-constituents — that’s why those zip code requirements exist in the first place. Until that changes, we don’t want our users to waste their time.
So that’s it. If it seems simple, it’s because it is. But we think that unbreaking how Congress connects to the Internet is important. You should be able to send a call to action in a tweet, easily forward a listserv message to your representative and interact with your government using the tools you use to interact with everyone else.