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Engaging Congressional Members in Modernizing Frameworks
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December 15, 2020
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This blog is part of an ongoing series documenting how to conduct Stakeholder, Individual Data, Evidence (SIDE) Events.

Written by Edgar Vazquez, Emelia Williams, Lorelei Kelly

In May, 2020 the House of Representatives passed HR 965, a dramatic emergency measure to preserve continuity of operations during the COVID19 pandemic. This action provided permission for Members of Congress to carry out many of their duties remotely, using electronic methods for convening and document submission, in place of conventional analog procedures.   This institutional action has created an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine a broader, deeper and more participatory deliberative process in the “Peoples’ House” -- the most democratic part of the U.S. national legislature.

The SIDE Event presents such an opportunity. Based on the expert discourse in support of Congress’ own Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, SIDE stands for Stakeholders, Individuals Data and Evidence. It is a district-based inclusive method for a Member to gain civic voice feedback on an issue of local concern. The event is derived from the SIDE Framework -- a way of strategically thinking about inclusive design, data and other modern resources for lawmaking.

For years, Members of Congress have been stymied by obsolete technology, rigid top-down party leadership and inadequate scientific expertise. Because tech and data are vital currencies for power and influence in the modern world, our team has set out to make sure these new rules make democracy a competitive alternative in these realms.

A first step in piloting the SIDE Event in light of H.R. 965, was to select five Congressional offices. We started by establishing benchmarks and asking some essential scoping questions:

  1. Who is committed to environmental issues and/or climate resilience?
  2. Who is already thinking about the potential of technology and data as a common good of our democratic system?

We narrowed down our search of congressional members with these two questions as well as those who represented our team’s geographic location by district in the House. These priorities reflect our goals within the broader SIDE Framework and, later the geographically based Civic Voice Archive [1]. On one hand, we want to modernize where and how and when geography plays a role in the supply chain of information. These criteria are key to our understanding of the renewal of American democracy in that it prioritizes and supports local methods and relationships. On the other hand, we want to create a different archetype of constituent that is viewed as a valuable data source.

In order to answer the first two questions, we conducted desk research on several potential congressional members to determine who would be most receptive to piloting the SIDE Event. In addition to our aforementioned two benchmarks, we looked at their membership in caucuses, committees, voting record on environmental policy, as well as bills sponsored and cosponsored relating to environmental issues.

Relevant caucuses that came up during the initial search include the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Women’s Caucus, Congressional Bike Caucus, Future of Transportation Caucus, and the tri-Caucus (Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Asia Pacific islander Caucus). Relevant committees that came up during the search on the House side included the Committee on Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources, the Subcommittee on Diversity and Inclusion, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, the Committee on Transportation, the Committee on Housing and Urban Development, and the Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services. Given our priorities of issue, location and Member interest, the most relevant membership in this phase was the Energy and Commerce and Natural Resources committees. Legislative history was essential in this process, but we also overlaid geographic location in order to emphasize specific elements of the SIDE Framework.

Looking past their sponsored bill history and committee record, it was useful to see how members communicated in their personal newsletters and on their websites. A key guardrail in our democratic system is the bright line between campaigning and governing. Of note is to compare a member's prioritized issues during campaigning versus what that member does in office, during the governing process itself (per ethics rules, members have a separate media presence for each). What issues come up during their campaign? Where does a candidate  physically show up on the campaign trail? Other forms of media proved useful in our research as well, including watching hearings from specific committees. Examining members’ responses and testimonies shines a light on how the issues are framed within their district’s context and how the member understands the issues, based on what sources they are drawing from and the analytical processes they use to communicate their understanding.

More nuanced aspects of researching included determining the level of district engagement through asking these questions:

  • Who is actively engaging their constituents?
  • Who is holding events outside of the institutionally required space (i.e. committee hearings)? Outside of party-sanctioned messages or formats?
  • Who seems to respond enthusiastically to their constituents? To non-typical media questions?

We took a holistic view of the Member -- and noted their previous events with local universities, community centers, labor unions, non-profit organizations. Such presence illuminates where and how involved the members are within their districts. Watching video footage of these events and reading media recaps (including social media) gave us a better idea of how these meetings are perceived, whether they are useful to the average citizen, what format and methods the member uses to moderate, and how members’ communication lines up with their voting record. Through these connections within their districts, Members’ respective policy priorities are inherently demonstrated.  

We are excited to see enthusiasm from congressional offices in trying out the SIDE Event on an issue like COVID relief and response paired with environmental regulation, management, and other geographically relevant issues.

Based on our research and congressional engagement thus far, our next step is to connect with congressional offices to pilot two to three of these events in early 2021. We will share our learnings from those pilots on the blog and help congressional offices do the same.

Note:

[1] To learn about our vision for a civic voice archive, please see Designing a Democracy Fueled by Civic Voice Data.