PopVox Asks: Should Congress Furlough Itself?

Marci Harris of PopVox on how a DC media outlet channeled viewers' frustrations with Congress through her site.

When last we spoke, Marci Harris was building out PopVox, a non-partisan site that helps constituents express their opinions on bills before Congress. On a day like today, when many people feel that Congress has turned a deaf ear their way, we caught up with Harris to learn more about PopVox--and a relatively new feature of the site, sponsored “non-bill actions.”

FAST COMPANY: Typically Popvox presents bills that exist in Congress for contituents to express their feelings on. But the top cause celebre on PopVox right now is not a bill at all--it’s a measure sponsored by DC-area station, WUSA9.

MARCI HARRIS: This is a bit experimental for us. Last year, we began allowing people to create what we call “non-bill actions,” the most unsexy title ever. People were coming to us wanting to advocate for an issue before Congress that hadn’t been introduced as a bill. Our requirements for non-bill actions are the same as everything else on PopVox--a proposal phrased in a way that anyone can support or oppose it.

What happened with WUSA9 is an interesting case. Because they broadcast in DC, Maryland, and Virginia, a lot of their viewers are federal workers. WUSA9 was covering the effects of the sequester on federal workers. Some viewers came to feel that if federal workers would be furloughed, Congress should take a voluntary furlough as well. Almost 3,000 people weighed in on this proposal, delivered to legislators, on whether Congress should take a voluntary furlough.

It kind of seems like Congress did take a voluntary furlough, for all they achieved.

To be furloughed you have to not get paid. It’s actually an interesting constitutional issue, since Congress can’t cut its own pay. It was more of a message point. But it was interesting to see a media outlet use this as a way to engage their viewers. My understanding is that they were really happy with the opportunity to see what real people were telling Congress.

It seems to cross the line slightly into advocacy?

People could choose to support or oppose the measure. [PopVox users overwhelmingly voted in favor of the measure; only 3% opposed.] Huffington Post frequently places our widgets in articles that talk about different bills, and we get lots of links from Take Action News.

What’s the takeway from WUSA9’s success?

I think what’s been interesting is that the media is interested in helping people not just get information but be more active. I think it’s interesting that WUSA9 created the non-bill action itself, but in many ways a common version of that exists every day. There’s always an opportunity for the media to cover what’s going on in Congress and to help people to actually express their opinion and affect policy.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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