Congress Shifted to Advocacy. Can It Shift Back?

In response to Kevin Kosar’s original post, Betsy Wright Hawkings warned everyone, be careful with reviving the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA):

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.

Hawkings continued,

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.

There are two fundamental insights in Hawkings’s piece that I’d like to tease out. First, as political scientist Kenneth Shepsle wrote, “Congress Is a ‘They,’ Not an ‘It’.” Congress isn’t a singular thing, but a body made up of many members, some with expertise and others without. When Kosar explains that “Congress’s ineptitude in [science and technology policy] has been richly displayed,” he underplays the high-level discussion that does occur.

Second, the rise of 24-hour TV and social media have changed organizational patterns in Congress toward communication and outreach, and away from policy analysis and development. These shifts could mean that more tech expertise does little to change the course of Congress. To help understand why these points are important, let’s consider two episodes that purport to show a lack of tech expertise in Congress: the congressional testimonies of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

When Zuckerberg went in front of the House and the Senate to face grilling from members, the resulting coverage was hardly flattering. As the New York Times reported,

The lack of technological knowledge was glaring. Members mostly comprised lawyers or former business people, and many are just getting acquainted with social media, artificial intelligence, autonomous self-driving cars, drones and other technologies that they are charged to oversee.

The headline from CBS News read, “Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony reveals Congress’ confusion about Facebook.” Emily Stewart at Vox wrote, “Some of the lines of questioning senators from both parties pursued demonstrated they aren’t exactly the most tech-savvy bunch, aren’t entirely clear on how Facebook works, or maybe have just never used the platform.”

While some of the questioning did display a misunderstanding of the core technologies of Facebook, Zuckerberg had to respond to a number of tough questions. Senator Lindsey Graham pressed him on competition, saying, “If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?” Dean Heller asked if Facebook sold data to advertisers. Senator Ted Cruz pushed Zuckerberg on the legal undergirdings to Facebook, “Do you consider yourself a neutral public forum, or are you engaged in political speech, which is your right under the First Amendment?” Senator Amy Klobuchar brought up the Honest Ads Act.

So yes, there were “weird and awkward moments,” but there were also very directed questions. As I explained last year, “The problem thus seems to be not simply a lack of tech knowledge in Congress writ large, but a lack of sensitivity to tech issues on specific and powerful (yet not specifically tech-focused) committees.” Perhaps reviving the OTA will raise the overall level of expertise, but it could also be that some of the criticism toward congressional members is unwarranted.

The coverage of Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee was also framed as a lack of expertise in Congress. Mashable’s Matt Binder described the event:

The main topic of the hearing—anti-conservative bias within Google’s search engine—really puts how little Congress understands into perspective. Early on in the hearing, Rep. Lamar Smith claimed as fact that 96 percent of Google search results come from liberal sources. Besides being proven false with a simple search of your own, Google’s search algorithm bases search rankings on attributes such as backlinks and domain authority. Partisanship of the news outlet does not come into play. Smith asserted that he believe[s] the results are being manipulated, regardless of being told otherwise.

Representative Steve Chabot and Representative Steve King brought up concerns of anti-conservative bias as well. Towards the end of piece Binder laid bare his concern, which is shared by many:

There are certainly many concerns and critiques to be had over algorithms and data collection when it comes to Google and its products like Google Search and Google Ads. Sadly, not much time was spent on this substance at Tuesday’s hearing. Google-owned YouTube, the second most trafficked website in the world after Google, was barely addressed at the hearing tool. [sic]

Notice the assumption built into this critique. True substantive debate would probe the data collection practices of Google instead of the bias of its search results. Using this framing, it seems clear that Congressional members don’t understand tech. But there is a better way to understand this hearing, which requires asking a more mundane question: Why is it that political actors like Representatives Chabot, King, and Smith were so concerned with how they appeared in Google results?

Political scientists Gary Lee Malecha and Daniel J. Reagan offer a convincing answer in The Public Congress. As they document, political offices over the past two decades have been reoriented by the 24-hours news cycle. Legislative life now unfolds live in front of cameras and microphones and on videos online. Over time, external communication has risen to a prominent role in congressional political offices, in key ways overtaking policy analysis. Berin Szoka is right that congressional staff, “just don’t have the time or expertise to work through the hard questions facing their Members and committees they way they need to.” But even if the OTA were revived, it is not clear congressional offices would significantly change their focus.

None of these points are slam dunks against the OTA. Rather, they are both arguments for ambivalence, to borrow Geoffrey Manne’s phrasing. At the end of the day, reviving the OTA will be at best a marginal change in Congress. While some might applaud it, criticism of Congress seems to be rooted in far more fundamental concerns.

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.