Rep. Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, holds a hearing in Washington on June 20, 2012.
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Rep. Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, holds a hearing in Washington on June 20, 2012.

Story highlights

A Republican-designed online platform implements public suggestions on pending laws

When it comes to actual governing, Republicans have shed their Luddite stereotype

Rep. Darrell Issa: "Technology should reduce the size of government"

A study found Republicans in Congress use Twitter more effectively than Democrats

Editor’s Note: Gregory Ferenstein is an author and educator. His writings on technology, education and politics have appeared on, on The Huffington Post and in The Washington Post.

CNN —  

Everyday Americans now have the power to advise congressmen and influence legislation through Project Madison, a new online platform that implements public suggestions on pending laws.

Here’s the kicker: It was designed by a Republican.

Thanks to their pioneering use of the Internet to raise money and mobilize supporters in the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, Democrats have gained a reputation in recent years as being ahead of Republicans in embracing digital tools. Witness 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain’s public comments about his unfamiliarity with e-mail.

But since 2010, conservatives have actually begun to outrank their Democrat rivals as technology trailblazers. From introducing a social network for crowdsourced legislation to their recent show of strength on Twitter, Republicans have made strides to rid themselves of the Luddite label.

Perhaps the most impressive display of their new tech-savvy direction is Project Madison, the nickname for a crowdsourcing platform that allows citizens to amend individual passages of legislation by adding or striking language. Citizens are encouraged to like or dislike each change, with the most popular suggestions rising to the top. Additionally, individual users and organizations must reveal their identity, so the source of every suggestion is transparent.

“Technology should reduce the size of government,” Project Madison’s creator, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, told me recently after launching an effort to expand Project Madison to the entire legislative docket. “Transparency tells us where government is building up bureaucracy.”

The language of small government, reduced regulation, and transparency has helped galvanize conservatives to support the use of technological tools and technology-friendly legislation. Issa and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor were influential in boosting a massive online protest against the regulation-heavy Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have penalized websites that host pirated content and faced near-unanimous opposition from the technology industry.

Cantor also appointed a separate technology communications director, Matt Lira, who, among many projects, helped launched YouCut, a digital platform that allows the public to choose which federal programs Republicans will propose to cut.

“Because technology has the potential of making government more efficient, less expensive to run, and more accountable, it’s not surprising that the Republicans are ahead of the Democrats in the use of technology in governing,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder and publisher of Tech President, a blog about the intersection of politics and technology.

While both parties in Congress have generally agreed on transparency issues, such as a 72-hour online viewing window before laws are passed, these digital tools of direct democracy have recently been a signature pursuit of Republicans.

The glacial speed of Congress can make it difficult to assess the impact of technological advancement, but there are signs these tools are making a difference. Issa’s proposed alternative to SOPA, the OPEN Act, adopted some specific suggestions from the online community through Project Madison, including a provision to protect owners of a website domain name from the illicit actions of the person who runs the website.

And the DATA Act, a Republican-led bill to let citizens track federal spending online, has passed the House.

This GOP commitment to technology has extended to social networks as well. A recent study by Edelman Digital found that Republican members of Congress use Twitter more effectively than their Democratic counterparts. According to the study, conducted over nearly four months in late 2011, Republican lawmakers had nearly twice the Twitter interaction – mentions, replies, and retweets – as did Democrats.

A study by the University of Michigan, examining the 2010 midterm elections, found similar results. It concluded that “conservative candidates used this medium (Twitter) more effectively, conveying a coherent message and maintaining a dense graph of connections.”

The authors of the University of Michigan study also praised what they saw as impressive consistency across the messages of the Tea Party, the grassroots small-government movement that has managed to unseat powerful Republican incumbents such as Sen. Richard Lugar. Meanwhile, the left-leaning Occupy Wall Street movement has been criticized for an incoherent agenda and is sputtering towards political oblivion.

Republicans have made a concerted effort to beef up their social-media presence since 2008, in part by recruiting tech-savvy staffers to train members of Congress in how to use social networks.

Unfortunately for them, these digital-messaging skills haven’t always spilled over into general campaigning. President Obama’s re-election team has hired an army of PhDs to construct the “Dashboard,” a so-called Holy Grail of campaign tech that orchestrates volunteer canvassing in real time. The system relays crucial data back to a team of statisticians, who then can reroute the entire organization to optimally target malleable voters.

When it comes to the liberal tradition of grassroots organizing, Democrats still may have a home-field advantage.

Yet when it comes to actual governing, Republicans have shed their Luddite stereotype. This means Democrats have a reason to up their game as well. Let’s hope these innovations spark a high-tech arms race that will raise the bar for how America is governed in the 21st century.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gregory Ferenstein.