Congressional Tech Knowledge Must Start at Home

The all-too-frequent allegation that “Congress is Broken” is clear. But among the most broken parts of Congress may be one that is not immediately visible to the public: the out-of-date technologies that undergird the operations of the place. If it weren’t for a hearing that unintentionally exposed a particular Senator still using a flip-phone, refusing to use email, or claiming to be a fan of “the Facebook,” there might be no public awareness of this tech deficit at all.

I confess to some trepidation the day the member for whom I served as chief of staff traded in his pager for a Blackberry in 2001. Sure, I could call him anywhere, and count on quicker responses to emails I sent him. On the other hand, he could now expect the same from me.

Longtime House colleagues (not to mention the few House Administration staff Sherpas whose lonely job it was to drag member offices up the technology mountainside) will chuckle if not outright guffaw at the thought of me making an impassioned argument for upgraded tech systems to better serve congressional offices. I think I can rightfully claim being chief for the very last office using the House’s original, non-Windows-based correspondence management software—in 2008.

Clearly this approach to tech engagement is not sustainable. More importantly, there are products that can serve constituents’ needs better than anything available to House offices. I did not have the capacity to figure out what they were, however; and the House did not have the capacity to do the work for me. Very importantly for the purposes of this piece: Contrary to popular narrative, it never did.

There are a range of causes cited for the dysfunction. Democracy Fund’s Governance Program—which I led from January 2016 until early this year—diagnosed as closely resembling a “death spiral” Congress’s inability to adequately resource itself, maintain policymaking expertise inside the institution, and respond effectively to the demands of its constituents.

In January, the weight of this problem became too great. The House did a remarkable thing: It established a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, whose express purpose is to update congressional operations, processes, and procedures to better reflect the needs of the institution and its members. And it did so with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote. Advocates inside and outside the institution leveraged a multi-year, bipartisan effort by Congressmen Dan Lipinski and Darin LaHood to establish such a panel to “investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations on modernizing Congress, including recommendations on (among other areas) … technology and innovation.”

“Technology” and “Innovation” are not words usually associated with Congress, and the problem has become progressively worse. Over the last decade, Congress has reduced funding for its own day-to-day operations, leading to hemorrhage of the legislative expertise, institutional knowledge, and entrepreneurial collaborative spirit that characterized the post–World War II institution.

Some blame former Speaker Newt Gingrich for catalyzing this cultural contraction when House Republicans took the majority in 1995 for the first time in 40 years. At that time many duplicative, redundant, or just plain outdated functions and practices of House operations were eliminated. Every congressional office did not need to receive—as we had for many years—a bucket of ice and perfectbound copies of the Congressional Record and the Federal Register every morning on our doorstep.

Some of us who served in the institution at the time know it’s more complicated. We know from personal experience that most of what was eliminated was never missed. We also saw the damaging domino effect of newly elected Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointing in 2007—when Democrats retook the House—a Chief Administrative Officer who appeared to prioritize politics over process in his implementation of procedures. This undermined, to a debilitating degree, the trust required to make decisions that cost money, but that are essential in the day-to-day support of member offices.

Most of all, the ever-increasing speed at which information is shared, and at which our 24-hour, niche-rich news cycle now operates, keeps members of Congress and their offices in a defensive crouch and retards long-term planning. Congress is a representative body, reactive by nature and design. Today it has even less time, inclination, or capacity than ever to take a long view—especially on items that cost money.

There is more than enough blame to go around; there are as many proposed solutions as members of Congress; and until recently, there has been precious little leadership. “Everyone is complaining about Congress,” Congressman Mike Gallagher was quoted as saying recently at a meeting of the Federalist Society. “Not just the American people but the members of Congress themselves, and yet we just keep doing things the same way.”

Many want to bring back the “Office of Technology Assessment,” but I caution: Be careful what you wish for.

Having served as a chief of staff for most of my 25 years on the Hill—including seven years prior to the elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)—my experience is that the OTA’s impact has been overly romanticized and credited far beyond its due. While it may have been a resource to some committees, and certainly was a resource to academics outside the institution, most rank and file members did not know it was there, much less what it did. This is because, as noted earlier, when it came to member offices, OTA did not do much.

Prime evidence of the OTA’s lack of impact was the (rightfully) long-forgotten, monopolistic, DOS-based MIN (Member Information Network) system, an intranet of sorts that was the sole, siloed electronic communication system for the House. MIN offered no access to the Internet or external email. Most members of Congress did not know what a web page was, which was just as well because Congress did not have the capacity to host member sites. There was no internal demand for websites as tools of constituent interaction or information dissemination, let alone a demand for the capability to use email as a communications device.

Some say this criticism is unfair, noting that MIN was not the responsibility of OTA. In response I say, “Exactly.”

Such was the nature of congressional computing under OTA—which is to say, it was not very advanced at all. OTA did not make Congress more tech savvy. Its brief may have been to make Congress tech literate and help members understand a wired world that developed after they became adults. A strong argument exists—in the form of MIN—that Congress with OTA was no more tech-literate relatively speaking than it is today. Basic tech literacy was not ever the responsibility of the institution, and it has never really existed.

When considering the best ways for the Select Committee to update congressional technology, then, we may not want to go back to the OTA model, unless we really do want to go backwards.

To make the best policy going forward, our hindsight must be accurate. We must remember what OTA did and did not do—and those of us who knew the old OTA must take the time to educate others. We must be careful to avoid restoring a bloated, think-tank bureaucracy that published white papers but did not effectively push the institution to modernize, establish itself as an innovation lab for constituent engagement, or assess or modernize congressional technology in any way at all. Most of all, if Congress is bound to spend additional money on itself—which I believe it must—that spending must help Congress do its job better. This is something the previous OTA simply did not do for most rank and file congressional offices.

It is true that Congress has struggled for decades 25 to keep pace with the private sector. Plainly, it has not succeeded. As I wrote for Democracy Fund in 2016:

Congress is full of good people driven to make our world a better place. Yet for far too many Americans, Congress is not fulfilling its responsibilities as a representative body. The institution’s failure to respond to increasing communication is driving public dissatisfaction and disengagement. We cannot simply invite greater public engagement without making sure Congress has strengthened its ability to respond. Without these investments first, we risk further alienating those we are trying to re-engage. … We have to ask, therefore, how we can help Congress develop more efficient tools to listen to the public, process the overwhelming amount of information, and invite more interaction from constituent groups, all while better managing the volume of communications from advocacy groups.

The current situation is not sustainable. But Congress was no more advanced with an OTA. The problem is the institution and its lack of resources. So if we bring back OTA, let’s do so in a way that serves members’ current needs.

Sometimes the legislative branch can surprise itself, and those moments should be seized and built upon. Last month, the Select Committee unanimously approved, on a bipartisan basis, a series of recommendations to increase transparency in the legislative process. It recommended adopting a standard format for making the process of drafting, viewing, and publishing legislation more transparent; strengthening the lobbying disclosure system to make it more efficient and easier to use; developing a centralized, electronic list of federal agency and program reauthorization expiration dates, by committee; and developing a more accessible and informative House website that includes committee votes.

These all seem like good first steps, but let’s be clear: They would be outside the purview of the vaunted OTA.

To help Congress be more tech savvy, the last thing we want to do is bring back something that didn’t help in the first place. Let’s envision something new that is member-focused, staff-focused and constituent-focused—not academic research-focused. Taking nothing away from academia, Congress has too much of a dumpster fire just dealing with its own, decades-derelicted duties.

Congress can build on the bipartisan success of establishing the Select Committee, and help restore trust in the institution, by developing a new Office of Technology to implement constituent service and communications tools. The early, bipartisan, and unanimous recommendations of the Committee show that Congress is able to act to increase the American people’s trust, and that Congress can respond to their concerns and solve national problems. That will take a new model for the OTA, however—one focused on serving members and their constituents, not a bureaucracy or the academic community.

If Congress can do that, the public might even be okay with providing the institution with a pay raise. It would be a great place to start.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kevin Kosar argues that Congress has a clear disadvantage in crafting tech policy. Its elected nature makes it responsive to the people, which is a good thing, but its members may still lack the expertise needed to understand the things they propose to regulate. Kosar suggests that reviving the congressional Office of Technology Assessment may help close the gap—and produce tech policy that is responsive to popular opinion, but also well-informed by rapidly developing facts.

Response Essays

  • A congressional office for tech policy would necessarily be caught in a partisan tug-of-war. While there may be good reasons to support greater congressional responsibility—which would require greater congressional knowledge—still, both the appearance and the reality of partisan bias remain serious problems. Even pursuing perfect neutrality risks making such an office invisible and irrelevant.

  • Betsy Wright Hawkings argues that congressional tech competence needs to start with the members’ own office software and social media experiences. For as long as anyone can remember, Congress has been a tradition-bound institution, slow to modernize its own offices and official procedures. Hawkings points to one key counterexample, however: The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, which, she argues, did real good and should be emulated.

  • Decades ago, the Supreme Court allowed Congress to give much of its legislative authority to unelected executive agencies and their bureaucrats. Congress happily gave away its responsibilities—even as federal spending levels exploded. Now, says Berin Szóka, a newly conservative Court looks ready to undo that change, and Congress is ill-prepared to resume its rightful constitutional responsibilities.