For more than a century, bells have been used in the Capitol to alert lawmakers when it’s time to vote. It’s a system that still operates in present day with loud buzzing sounds indicating not only the time, but the type of activity in the House chamber.
And these days, there’s also an app for that.
It’s yet another sign of the changing times, a juxtaposition of old vs. new. Standing amid statues and portraits that adorn the storied hallways of Congress, lawmakers are looking down at their phones, relying on the latest technology to make their day more efficient.
The office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer runs an app, Dome Watch, that’s become a favorite among Democratic members and aides – not to mention some Republicans and reporters – for tracking floor activity, vote breakdowns, and timing, among other things.
While it was designed for lawmakers and aides, the app has long been open to the public for anyone interested in tracking House activity. According to Hoyer’s office, it’s had 50,000 downloads since it first launched under a different name in 2015, though a fully revamped version launched this week.
It’s most popular for the notifications that announce the start of a new vote series in the House chamber. Some lawmakers and aides admit they tune out the bells and rely on the app instead, saying the sophisticated bell system — which buzzes a varying number of times in a row depending on the reason – can be confusing.
“I really don’t know what the bells mean,” quipped Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer of Washington. “I think it’s some kind of combination of Morse code and a Ouija board.”
Kilmer, who uses the app, is also the chair of the new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which looks at other ideas to make the House more in step with the way members operate.
“What the app does is far more clear,” he said. “It says here’s what you’re voting on and here’s how much time is left.”
Formerly known as “Whip Watch,” the app underwent a major update and name change over the weekend, now that Hoyer is majority leader and no longer minority whip. The new version features a high-definition live stream of the House floor, and it functions on Androids and on desktops, rather than just Apple products like before.
The app also includes short descriptions of each bill or procedural vote, and sometimes it has recommendations from leadership on how Democrats should vote as a caucus. It also lists job openings for staffers, a resume bank, and a calendar showing when the House is in session.
House Republicans don’t have a similar app, but many – as do reporters – rely on the popular Republican Cloakroom Twitter feed and emails from leadership on vote timing and bill descriptions. Some Republican aides say they use “Dome Watch,” as well.
Fans of the app say it reflects the growing desire for transparency in government.
“So much of the reform that’s been made in Congress over the last century has been about trying to add more exposure. You think about when C-SPAN cameras came in,” Kilmer said. “A lot of that has been around trying to improve the transparency and the efficiency of the Congress on behalf of the American people.”
Rep. Jimmy Gomez said the app gives people a front row seat to history in the palm of their hand.
“Congress is no longer something that happens 3,000 miles away from my district,” said the California Democrat. “It’s something that can happen right on your phone.”
Gomez, while standing outside the chamber during a vote, opened his phone to show he could keep track in real time of yays and nays, including the party breakdown.
“You have 14 Republicans voting with Democrats on this,” he told CNN, watching the numbers come in for the vote to override the President’s first veto (The override failed).
Practically speaking, though, it simply helps him plan better. Gomez had just arrived from a hearing, where he said he was keeping an eye on the app to see how much time he had left before the clock ran out in the chamber – so he wouldn’t miss the vote.
Hoyer’s app is just one example of the kind of technology that members want to explore further in the modernization committee.
Republican Rep. Tom Graves, the vice chair of the committee, described the quest for better technology as a bipartisan issue. “I’m excited to see what our committee can recommend in this area, especially in terms of how we communicate with constituents,” he said.
Along with the bell system, lawmakers are also offered pagers to help notify them of votes. Republican Rep. William Timmons, a freshman from South Carolina, expressed bewilderment at the pagers while holding one up during a modernization hearing Wednesday.
“I literally thought someone was playing a joke on me,” he said.
Freshman Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, who’s also on the committee, told CNN she downloaded Dome Watch before she was even elected to Congress. When she was a candidate for office and her campaign team would visit the House to hold meetings with members, they would use the app to predict if votes might get in the way of their appointments.
“It’s great, especially when you’re running around like crazy,” said Scanlon, a Pennsylvania Democrat who now uses the app as a member herself. “It allows you to know where you have to be next and when and how much time you’ve got.”