Note: Some minor corrections were made to this article shortly after publishing, further clarifying that the volunteers were not lobbying Congressional Members.
The newly established Chamber of Digital Commerce descended on Washington D.C. on Friday with volunteers coming in from as far away as Texas and Florida. They handed out information to every Congressional Office on the hill, making sure that every member of Congress at least has had the opportunity to learn about Bitcoin and digital currencies.
Full Disclosure: I attended the event as a participant. With 535 voting members of Congress, there was a lot of ground to cover. Besides, as a journalist, I figured it was important to see first hand how much the staff of the people who will one day be deciding Bitcoin's regulatory fate know about the digital currency. Important enough to outweigh fears of becoming biased for the purposes of this article.
It was the first annual Congressional Bitcoin Education Day and essentially The Chamber's first tangible public act. Regardless of your feelings on if Bitcoin and regulation can coexist, everyone agrees that it is better to have a Congress educated about Bitcoin than the alternative. Which was the Chamber's stated mission: to educate Congress.
They stressed that very strongly. The volunteers were not registered lobbyists and it is very important to point out were not lobbying. We were not legally allowed to push a specific agenda. Instead, we were instructed to simply educate the staff of Congressional leaders on Bitcoin technology.
Which is another important point. Congress was, and remains in, recess, Bitcoin Education Day took place on the Friday before Labor day. There were very few actual members of Congress on the Hill on this particular day. There is a silver lining to that, it is the staff that does most of the research for their bosses, and establishing the Chamber as a source of information, as opposed to someone less favorable to Bitcoin that may get into their ears.
In all, 70 official meetings were taken with Congressional Members or their staff (almost entirely their staff), while every remaining member of Congress received a flier with basic information about Bitcoin's potential economic impact.
- "Uscapitolindaylight" by Kmccoy - en.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Still, it is hard to argue with the logic that going on the Hill when Congress was around would have enabled us to speak to both the staffers and the members of Congress interested enough to want to talk to us.
The event was attended by one national politician, Representative Steve Stockman (R-TX) who is also the politician pushing for Bitcoin to be recognized as a currency in his state, contributed to the event. Without his help, the Chamber would not have been able to get access to a room in the Rayburn House Office Building which acted as a sort of home base for the volunteers and interns.
Two of the three staffers I talked to seemed very interested and and even excited about the idea of Bitcoin. The other one was a quick meeting, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Sticking to its namesake, the event was focused on education, not policy. As such, a staffer's reaction to what is likely their first meeting dealing with digital currencies shouldn't be taken as any kind of window into the actual Congressperson's viewpoint. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the mostly friendly reaction myself and other participants seemed to receive from the staffers.
After the event, the Chamber hosted a party at Bullfeathers, a bar that sits within ear shot of the Capitol Building. It was there that I sat at the bar, talking to a younger gentleman about what we had just experienced.
He had come out from Texas, on his own dime, to do his part in shaping the movement's response to the government's attempt at regulation. He was already involved in the movement itself, working with the Crypto College Network, but he, like many others attending, seemed to want to help make the initial interactions between the movement and the government go as smoothly as possible.
- Perianne Boring, Representative Steve Stockman and Ralph Benko via Twitter
He asked me if I thought anything we did today made a difference. So much with social movements seem to be just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks. I have attended and observed various protests over the years, but I never got the feeling that anyone sitting inside the marble buildings we stood outside of were actually listening. I, perhaps incorrectly, always felt that the idea was to get people passing by on your side, swelling your numbers until the politicians are forced to deal with it.
So, even though Congressional Bitcoin Education Day was a completely different kind of attempt at social change, it had not occurred to me to wonder if it actually worked. There is a process involved in political things and everyone knows lobbying and money rules in Washington.
Friday was a crucial first step. The fliers we handed out and the business cards we exchanged aren't going to counteract the piles of money hostile financial institutions may be willing to throw at them. But, giving them an option, making that all-important first contact, these things are laying the groundwork for eventually combating those forces. Whether that is through a brute force lobbying and money battle, or a more targeted approach where the Chamber targets the few honest politicians left, remains to be seen (and likely depends on the Chamber's future funding). The important thing is that the staging area is set, we gave Congress the information they need and a resource for reliable and accurate Bitcoin information.
Which is not insignificant. Politicians don't necessarily need to be influenced by outside parties to make bad decisions. Simple ignorance and fear is often enough. If and when legislation comes through Capitol Hill, the Representatives and Senators now have had at least the chance to learn about Bitcoin. As I said in answer to the question at the time: We showed them the door, it is up to them to open it.
Bitcoin backed SuperPACs are coming, and they do figure to make an impact on how Bitcoin legislation comes down the tube. With simple blockchain voting mechanisms, it isn't unrealistic to expect SuperPACs for and by the people replacing not only the Chamber but things like Stephen Colbert's SuperPAC from last year's election cycle as well.
That time is way off. For now, The Chamber, led by Perianne Boring, seems to know what it is doing and is presenting a good front for Bitcoin in Washington. In addition to writing at Forbes, Boring spent time in politics and has an obvious knack for grabbing and holding people's attention, something that isn't always easy to do on the Hill. Congressional Bitcoin Education Day didn't solve any problems, The Chamber seems aware of that. This represents the first time the Bitcoin community, outside of visits by the Foundation, has reached out to the leaders in Washington. That shouldn't be understated, especially as things like New York's BitLicense start popping up in the various states. This was a great first step, but we need to be proactive moving towards that second step: getting Congress on board with Bitcoin.
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