Many lawmakers in Congress still might not understand what bitcoin is, but next week they'll at least be able to get their digital hands on it.
Thanks to some assistance from Rep. Jared Polis, Robocoin — a company that builds ATMs for the virtual currencies — will set up an informational kiosk in a congressional office building on Tuesday. The move comes amid growing concerns about how, or if, government should regulate the budding alternative payment market that exists only in computers.
"Come see a Robocoin demo, hear a brief bitcoin talk from Congressman Jared Polis, try buying bitcoin yourself, and ask your burning bitcoin questions," the invitation sent out to members of Congress reads. "Welcome to the future of anti-fraud, anti-identify theft, and anti-money laundering — this is customer protection built for the 21st century."
Bitcoin and other digital currencies like it can be exchanged for traditional dollars or spent at participating online vendors and some real-world retailers. Its supporters view it as a quick and innovative form of payment that ducks some of the fees commonly associated with online transactions, while its critics view it as a province of anonymous actors with nefarious intent, such as money laundering or drug trafficking.
Polis, a Colorado Democrat, has recently become an outspoken ally of bitcoin, and an aide in his office confirmed that the event was largely meant to serve as "exposure for lawmakers who are still learning about bitcoin."
Last month, Polis jokingly called for a ban on the U.S. dollar last month in response to a letter Sen. Joe Manchin sent to financial regulators asking them to ban the digital currency.
"The exchange of dollar bills, including high-denomination bills, is currently unregulated and has allowed users to participate in illicit activity, while also being highly subject to forgery, theft, and loss," Polis said.
Manchin has since come around somewhat on bitcoin, but lingering questions about bitcoin's volatility and feasibility persist. The IRS issued tax guidance last week that qualified bitcoin not as a currency but as property, a decision that earned mixed reviews.
The recent collapse of Japanese-based bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, which led to the quixotic disappearance of a chunk of bitcoin valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, has made some investors more skittish.
Bitcoin's popularity has exploded in the past year, as its usage increased by more than 75 percent between July and December 2013. The fervency of its early adopters and growing market value has led many investors and businesses, such as the Sacramento Kings and Overstock.com, to allow bitcoin as a method of payment.
The event next week is scheduled for Tuesday from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Rayburn House Office Building. It follows a hearing on bitcoin being held Wednesday by the House Small Business Committee, the first in the lower chamber on the topic. Late last year, the Senate convened two hearings probing the risks and opportunities associated with virtual currencies.