Have an urge to write your Member of Congress during your commute? Or maybe even make a campaign donation?
There’s an app for that — but only for a handful of lawmakers.
Over the past year, at least 16 Members of Congress have launched their own iPhone applications.
Most of the apps display news, stream YouTube videos and allow one-click access to social media sites and contact information. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s app, created by his political action committee, even allows users to donate to the Nevada Democrat’s campaign coffers.
Rep. Bob Latta was the first Member of Congress to develop a basic iPhone app in February 2010. The Ohio Republican’s office is now working on a new app that will be more visually pleasing and add several new features.
According to Latta, who co-chairs the Republican New Media Caucus, iPhone apps have the ability to make Congress more transparent and interactive with constituents.
“The power of social media has transformed mobile devices into the next frontier of communication,” Latta said. “More and more people are on their cellphones connecting with others and searching for information. In this digital age, building a phone app is the responsible thing to do. It makes sense to be part of that conversation.”
Latta’s new app, which is pending approval from Apple, will feature a “write-me” section that would allow users to directly send the Congressman a message and snap a picture of themselves to attach with it. It would also track his events and stream videos of his speeches and town hall meetings.
According to Mark Stetler, CEO of application development company AppMuse, apps have two major benefits: They aggregate information about Members, which can sometimes be overwhelming on the Internet, and they can reach a larger audience.
“People are on their iPhones and Droids 25 times a day, so you have the possibility to interface with them 25 times a day,” Stetler said. “If you think people who are used to using iPhone apps are going to use a browser to look at your website, then you’re selling yourself short.”
Apps are still a niche product in Congress, especially among Democrats. Of the 16 Members with apps, all but three are Republicans and only one is a Senator.
Still, things could change quickly in the fast-moving mobile phone market. Nine new apps popped up this year, mostly belonging to freshman Republican Members.
The first Democrat to create an app was Rep. Chaka Fattah in July 2010. The Pennsylvanian’s app features news, biography, contact information, videos and a map of his district.
“We saw the trend early that this is a tool that allows our constituents to be immediately engaged,” Fattah spokeswoman Debra Anderson said. “We built this app so that people in our district who don’t have a computer or a laptop can still receive information about what we’re doing.”
Anderson said she thinks that when Members realize the power of iPhone apps, there will be an increase in development.
“I think politicians are surprisingly a little bit behind the power curve,” said Stetler, the app developer.
He points to the fact that the benefits of investing in an iPhone app, which can cost from $7,500 to $15,000 to be done professionally, are hard to quantify. This makes some lawmakers apprehensive.
Developers have to be careful about what content they put on apps. If Members use their Members’ Representational Allowances to pay developers, the apps are subject to content regulations similar to franked mail, which means they can’t promote campaign events.
If Members use donor money to develop an app, they can promote their campaigns and ask for donations, but they can’t promote their official duties.
But recent companies have sprung up that allow businesses to create a basic mobile application for free. The only cost to Members would be a $99 fee to submit an approval request to Apple.
“Look at how successful [President Barack] Obama’s Facebook was and how everyone was surprised,” Stetler said. “IPhone applications have the same potential. If you don’t have an application in the next election cycle, I think it’s going to be a disadvantage.”
At least some Congressional offices agree: In August, the Republican New Media Caucus will be hosting a seminar on the emerging world of do-it-yourself mobile applications.
More on Congressional Apps
Although they’re generally similar, some iPhone apps for Members of Congress have slightly different features.