Four college students from Brooklyn are looking to be “your link to Congress.” How? Via internet, of course.
The Fourth Branch, a website currently in its fundraising stage, is the brainchild of Leonid Levit of Pace University, Larry Feldman of CUNY-Baruch, Jonathan Albert of The City College of New York, and Albert Barkan, a freshman at Boston College.
Albert, who has a two thousand dollar bet placed on him by his brother that he will become president before he’s sixty, was asked to help out with the development of the website last November by Leonid, a longtime friend of his. Albert’s personal devotion to the site stems from his “belief in tech startups.” He thinks “the way Facebook has transformed how people interact with each other can be translated to politics and public discussion. We can do that.”
These students have created a remedy for the problem of voter disinterest in Congressional affairs. They intend to summarize bills that are currently being debated by Congress that are on the Library of Congress’ website. By distilling the bills into a couple of paragraphs they hope to encourage everyone to be an informed citizen. Users can vote on the bills themselves, see how other users voted according to home state, and post their own opinions in the comments section. Discourse over the bills is highly encouraged. If the site reaches the level of prominence they hope it will, then as Albert explained, “Elected representatives could take notice of that”. Additionally, they hope this simplified hands-on approach to Congress will increase the general interest in legislative matters.
“For the past year or so we’ve been working on the layout of the site: what we want, what we don’t want. We want to be neutral. That’s very important. We’re discussing what kind of wording we want to use to make sure it’s fair and balanced...not to quote Fox News of course.” They’ve also been working on reaching their fundraising goal of $15,000. The site would be free to users but requires a start up amount for development. “We want to have the capacity to summarize state and local laws and we’re thinking of developing a Skype-like feature so people can debate face to face but that would cost money as well.” So far, they’ve accrued around $1,000.
The site makes note of the fact that “Congress has a 9% approval rating which is less than the estimated 15% to 20% approval rating of the British Empire during the Revolutionary War in 1776.” This 9% approval rating raises many questions, mainly, “Do people know what’s going on inside the Capitol or do they merely see results from the deliberations within?” For Albert, “it seems like most people don’t really care about Congress nowadays. We think the problem is that people think that Congress is too hard to understand. Who’s going to sit down and read a 50-page bill a day?”
“People just don’t care anymore about what’s going on," says Albert. "If you asked someone on the street, ‘Who’s your representative?’ they’re probably not going to be able to tell you. That’s sad because they represent you and that’s how people in Congress get away with what they do, it’s because nobody even notices it. I really wholeheartedly believe that we can change that.”
Albert and his team of four are determined to make Congress more accessible, and it’s obvious that they’re passionate about the cause. Who else would be willing to read and summarize a 50-page bill outside of a political science class?Images by Megan Flynn/Gavel Media