“Silicon Valley execs care more about what’s happening in Shanghai than they do in Washington, D.C.,” said Ellen Miller, Co-founder and Executive Director of The Sunlight Foundation at a TechCrunch event this week. I was invited there to review Crunchgov – a new Web site to educate the Valley on the happenings in Washington and to hold elected officials accountable for their record on technology-related issues.
Motivated by their success in defeating the badly construed Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bills earlier this year, bloggers are trying to get the technology sector to start speaking up and being heard.
“The technology industry is great at getting headlines for their key issues, such as immigration reform and an open internet, but they haven’t translated that power into actually passing complex laws,” TechCrunch’s Greg Ferenstein wrote to me in an e-mail. “At best, they’ll be able to stop bad laws, but that leaves them vulnerable to the status quo on immigration, intellectual property, education and a host of antiquated policies.”
Crunchgov provides a report card for every member of the House of Representatives and some Senators, grading them on how closely their voting record aligns to the interests of the technology industry. Ferenstein says this report card was designed with the help of the Sunlight Foundation and they plan to expand the list to include the rest of the Senate. Technology lobbying groups such as The Internet Association, Technet, Engine Advocacy, and Silicon Valley Leadership Group, are polled to determine which bills are important to the tech community, and legislators are assigned grades based on their support.
Ferenstein says that his team also worked with Congressman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) office to integrate Project Madison—a crowdsourced legislative platform. This places draft bills online and allows users to edit proposed legislation, line-by-line, and vote up the best suggestions. This way, they can offer their insights on complex tech bills. Madison also provides a new way for companies like Google and Facebook to make public statements instead of having to do backroom deals.
Crunchgov ranks political leaders as either a technology champion or a threat. They are, for the time being, judged on their votes on three bills: The Fairness in High Skilled Immigrants Act, SOPA, and The JOBS Act.
Seven house members, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), received an A for their support of tech, while three others, including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) received an F—for being tech-hostile.
Lofgren, who was at the TechCrunch event, told me she thought Crunchgov was a good idea because it would bring more accountability to Washington. But, as I discussed with her, the messiness of Washington showed the system’s flaws. Take the recent STEM Jobs Act, which was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). This had elements that the technology industry strongly supports, such as the addition of 55,000 visas to the skilled pool. But Lofgren voted against the bill because of other provisions. She said she disagreed with the bill’s zero-sum approach to immigration (the bill would have eliminated 55,000 visas from the Diversity Visa program that now benefits countries with low levels of immigration) and a provision in the bill that would have prevented unused visas from being used by other immigrants, which she believed was intended to lower overall immigration levels. Lofgren says that Smith rushed the legislation through Congress before the parties could discuss and reach consensus on this issue.
The tech lobbies were evenly divided on whether the STEM Jobs Act should be used as a measure of tech friendliness, so Crunchgov excluded it from the scorecard, according to Ferenstein.
My advice to the TechCrunch team was to turn Crunchgov, which is still in beta, into a widget that can be embedded on Web sites in order to provide a localized scorecard. So visitors to sites, such as Amazon.com will know how their leaders are voting on tech-related bills. Senator Grassley may not realize that, like the rest of us, farmers in Iowa depend on e-mail and e-commerce for their livelihood, social media for personal relationships, and the Internet for entertainment and education. It is about time that Grassley’s constituents start educating him.
“It’s nice to see all the lip service that politicians are paying to startups these days. But established special interests on the left and right shape political decisions, and entrepreneurs get ignored because they’re too busy building companies,” said TechCrunch co-editor Eric Eldon. “With CrunchGov, we’re aiming to fight back, and make it clear to politicians whose side they’re really on.”