Saying No to the Slog: How Two Harvard Students Changed Lobbying

How two Harvard students changed lobbying

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 5/23/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
National Journal
May 22, 2015, 12:36 a.m.

When Alex Wirth was a fresh­man at Har­vard, he be­came smit­ten with the idea of cre­at­ing a pres­id­en­tial youth coun­cil to give young people a dir­ect say in gov­ern­ment. So, when sum­mer came, the then-18-year-old did what any preter­nat­ur­ally polit­ic­al col­lege stu­dent would: He went to Wash­ing­ton to make it hap­pen.

Wirth asked the White House for an ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, but he spent most of his sum­mer trudging around the Hill, seek­ing al­lies for his idea the old-fash­ioned way: via mod­er­ately edu­cated guess­work and con­tacts. (Wirth is the great-neph­ew of former Sen. Tim Wirth of Col­or­ado and the son of a state sen­at­or from New Mex­ico; he also was a Sen­ate page in high school.) It was, to say the least, a dis­heart­en­ing ex­per­i­ence—”this wild goose chase across Cap­it­ol Hill,” he re­calls now. When he was able to talk to law­makers at all, most told him they didn’t have time for him, or prom­ised to think about his res­ol­u­tion and then nev­er called back. He left in­cred­u­lous and frus­trated with Wash­ing­ton in a way that only a di­git­al nat­ive could be. Was this la­bor­i­ous, in­ef­fi­cient, un­scientif­ic pro­cess really how lob­by­ing worked?

Back at school, Wirth ven­ted to his room­mate, a com­puter-sci­ence type named Jonath­an Marks, with whom he had bon­ded on a fresh­man-ori­ent­a­tion back­pack­ing trip. Marks, who had no ex­per­i­ence with Wash­ing­ton, was even more ap­palled than Wirth. “The more I learned about the way Alex’s world worked, it was in­con­ceiv­able to me,” Marks tells me. Wirth con­tin­ued his cam­paign, un­suc­cess­fully, from Cam­bridge. Then, dur­ing their ju­ni­or year, he and Marks hit upon an idea. At the time, Marks was work­ing in a bio­chem­istry lab, where he mapped how pro­teins in­ter­act in the body. What if he could chart law­makers’ ac­tions in much the same way? “Though pro­teins and people are dif­fer­ent things, math doesn’t really care,” Marks says. He thought he could get a com­puter to identi­fy ideal le­gis­lat­ive al­lies—ex­actly what Wirth had spent a sum­mer try­ing to do by dint of shoe-leath­er and mox­ie.

That idea be­came Quor­um, a data-ana­lyt­ics pro­gram that, today, four months after its launch, is already draw­ing a sur­pris­ing level of in­terest from Wash­ing­ton in­siders. Among those pay­ing Quor­um’s $4,800-per-user an­nu­al sub­scrip­tion price are the Club for Growth, the Podesta Group, the law firm Hol­land & Knight, the Glover Park Group, the United Na­tions Found­a­tion’s Bet­ter World Cam­paign, four con­gres­sion­al of­fices, and four For­tune 100 com­pan­ies—one of which is Gen­er­al Mo­tors. (Though Wirth is a self-de­scribed Demo­crat, he’s selling his product to all comers.) Wirth and Marks won’t dis­close their rev­en­ue, but they say that the busi­ness is already prof­it­able; they haven’t raised any ven­ture cap­it­al and haven’t needed it.

So what did two col­lege kids in a dorm room far out­side the Belt­way en­vi­sion that in­siders couldn’t? Quor­um’s key fea­ture is its abil­ity to map re­la­tion­ships between mem­bers of Con­gress. Pull up any law­maker, and you see what looks like a dan­deli­on gone to seed: a ball of sil­ver lines with red or blue points on their tips, which rep­res­ent Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats with whom that per­son has co­sponsored a bill. But Wirth and Marks are con­stantly adding new cap­ab­il­it­ies. All year, Wirth has been mak­ing trips to Wash­ing­ton to ask cli­ents and pro­spect­ive buy­ers what fea­tures they would use; he takes the sug­ges­tions to Marks and asks what it’s pos­sible to build. The res­ults have in­cluded dis­trict-by-dis­trict demo­graph­ic data and a search en­gine that can pull up every floor state­ment, press re­lease, or tweet from a law­maker on a par­tic­u­lar top­ic.

Was this la­bor­i­ous, in­ef­fi­cient, un­scientif­ic pro­cess really how lob­by­ing worked?

Not every swing con­nects. “I think it’s clear in how they’ve de­signed it that they’re not from the Hill,” says one con­gres­sion­al staffer whose of­fice is still test­ing Quor­um. For ex­ample, “there were some factors” the soft­ware uses to rate mem­bers of Con­gress that “we don’t think are par­tic­u­larly im­port­ant.” But the Quor­um team’s youth and chutzpah are for the most part serving them well: When I asked cli­ents wheth­er they felt strange do­ing busi­ness with col­lege stu­dents, they told me that, if any­thing, it gave the duo more cred­ib­il­ity. “It’s a mat­ter of be­ing able to crunch the data, be­ing able to move the data,” says Chris Cush­ing, a lob­by­ist at the firm Nel­son Mullins Ri­ley & Scar­bor­ough. “As a 52-year-old, I’m not on the cut­ting edge.”

This month, the room­mates are gradu­at­ing and re­lo­cat­ing to D.C. full time. In Wirth’s case, that’s no sur­prise. At Har­vard, he went on to study gov­ern­ment and eco­nom­ics, and since his fresh­man year, he has been a White House in­tern and the chair of a “youth work­ing group” at the U.S. Na­tion­al Com­mis­sion for the U.N. Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­entif­ic and Cul­tur­al Or­gan­iz­a­tion. Wirth’s still-smooth face must get him carded in res­taur­ants, but his man­ner at 21 is as pol­ished as any mid­ca­reer op­er­at­or’s. (He and oth­er stu­dents on the Quor­um team “have done de­bate, Youth and Gov­ern­ment, Mod­el U.N.,” he says, and are “com­fort­able in very big rooms with lots of im­port­ant people.”) Marks’s ar­rival in Wash­ing­ton was some­what less pre­dict­able: Be­fore Wirth in­tro­duced him to polit­ics, Marks, 22, who stud­ied chem­ic­al and phys­ic­al bio­logy as well as com­puter sci­ence at Har­vard, had al­ways planned to go in­to the “bio­med­ic­al space,” he says. “But, for now, I’ve be­come very in­ter­ested in the prob­lems faced by this par­tic­u­lar mar­ket.”

When they ar­rive, their game plan will be to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Quor­um from oth­er in­flu­ence-in­dustry play­ers, such as Bloomberg and CQ Roll Call, by prom­ising to save their users as much time and hassle as pos­sible. Marks’s latest ad­di­tion, for in­stance, com­pares two ver­sions of a bill and iden­ti­fies every dif­fer­ence in word­ing—a task that, un­til now, Hill staffers and lob­by­ists did the ana­log way, com­par­ing large doc­u­ments line by line, with high­light­er in hand. Like­wise, many ad­vocacy groups have long sunk huge amounts of time in­to cre­at­ing le­gis­lat­ive “score­cards,” which rank mem­bers’ per­form­ances on par­tic­u­lar is­sues. The group First Fo­cus Cam­paign for Chil­dren “used to spend a week and a half with three mem­bers of their staff” to make score­cards once a year, Marks says. With Quor­um, the pro­cess “takes an hour, and they do it once a week.” Stor­ies like that still leave Marks flab­ber­gas­ted: “It’s stuff a com­puter can do! Sav­ing people from that tre­mend­ous amount of time is what the in­form­a­tion-tech­no­logy re­volu­tion of the last 40 years is all about.”

Yet ap­par­ently, be­fore Quor­um, no one in Wash­ing­ton had no­ticed that the fu­ture had ar­rived. Per­haps that’s be­cause, as Hol­land & Knight lob­by­ist and former law­maker Gerry Sikor­ski ob­serves, old hands had “jerry-rigged” their own ap­proaches to find­ing in­form­a­tion and no longer no­ticed Cap­it­ol Hill’s in­ef­fi­cien­cies. “I still will reach for the con­gres­sion­al dir­ect­ory that I have in my car,” says Sikor­ski, who re­cently star­ted us­ing Quor­um. “I have the apps on my iPhone, but we’re cap­tive to our own ways of do­ing things.” Wirth and Marks, on the oth­er hand, had the time, op­tim­ism, and lack of fa­mili­ar­ity with D.C. to con­sider a new ap­proach. As one cli­ent puts it, “These are just really, really smart young guys who came up with an idea and don’t know well enough not to do it.”

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