Welcome to the woeful world of technology in Congress.
By Andrew Zaleski
Speaking in New York in June, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) recounted the story of her election as chair of the House Republican Conference in 2012. The 46-year-old likened the conference to a 1950s law office, and listed her grievances: Most House members used social media like Facebook and Twitter, but only for posting boilerplate press releases instead of communicating directly with voters. To announce the conference’s new leadership team, she was told, it required “a couple days to program the computers to be able to handle a mass email.” What’s more, the conference would have no way of knowing how many emails were opened, or even delivered.
“What we’re seeing is a 19th-century institution often using 20th-century technology to respond to 21st-century problems,” she said.
McMorris Rodgers’ frustrations are just a small window into the world of woeful congressional technology, where some House members browse the Web using early versions of Internet Explorer and Senate offices are not allowed to pay third parties for data tools to help them track how well they communicate with constituents on social media. Outdated technology also prevents lawmakers from responding to constituent correspondence quickly, collecting data that could help shape policy decisions, maintaining robust committee meeting records and even protecting data sent over elected officials’ personal websites.
While popular culture and the media might have us believe that the U.S. Congress’ biggest problems are partisan dysfunction or corruption, in many ways America’s lawmaking body is, perhaps more than anything, ill-equipped and obsolete. “Congress isn’t actually organized enough to be that awful,” says Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute who analyzes use of technology in the legislative branch. A collective effort to modernize Congress is slowly taking shape among nonprofits, foundations, congressional offices, elected officials and individual staffers. But as they push for reforms that they say will save staffers’ and taxpayers’ time and money, plus increase transparency, what’s at stake is no less than the functionality of representative government in the United States. “How we go with technology in the next five to 10 years is going to determine the reputation of democracy in the world,” Kelly argues.
Consider one example: Before June, it was uncertain whether House members could use free, open-source software such as WordPress or Apache OpenOffice (an alternative to Microsoft Word) to build their websites and run their offices; under a previous interpretation of the House gift rule, open-source software could be viewed as an impermissible gift because someone else had built it and members of Congress hadn’t paid for it. (In the U.S. Senate, WordPress is allowed, but the rules on other open-source software are murkier.) Another example: Roger Dean Huffstetler, who worked in Silicon Valley for five years before becoming chief of staff to Representative Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), was shocked when he found out that Evernote—popular software that would let him record, organize and share notes with fellow staffers—was blocked on his office computer because, the House’s deputy chief information officer told him, it holds data in the cloud.
“Coming to the House of Representatives from Silicon Valley is like going in a time machine—the technology that is in use here is deplorable,” Huffstetler says. “I’ve been here more than 100 days, and I still haven’t gotten an answer about unblocking Evernote.” (The House deputy CIO declined to comment for this article, and the Senate Sergeant at Arms office, which oversees technology in the Senate, declined to comment on the record.)
Huffstetler’s lament might sound like a bit of a first-world problem, but often tech (or lack thereof) gets in the way of Congress’ duties. For instance, when considering amendments to bills up for debate, there is no automated, electronic way to view how new amendment language would change the bill. Instead, staffers spend time comparing paper drafts of amendments to electronic versions of bills cataloged on Congress.gov.
“I’ve seen amendments submitted at the desk by staffers who were sitting there handwriting them,” says Seamus Kraft, a former congressional staffer turned executive director of the OpenGov Foundation, a nonprofit that pushes for legislative transparency through open-source technology. “They’re allowed to have computers with them. There’s just no way for them to do amendments
Another trouble spot: constituent mail. An analysis by the Congressional Management Foundation—a nonprofit that provides training to congressional staffers—recently found that from 2002 to 2010, House and Senate offices saw 158 percent and 548 percent more digital mail, respectively. But some in Congress say the available constituent mail systems—what are known on Capitol Hill as “constituent relationship management” (CRM) tools—are far from ideal; sometimes a search term a staffer enters in order to read or respond to messages on a similar topic yields inaccurate matches, or the CRM misses an email, which leaves the staffer to sort through constituent emails manually.
Representative Jared Polis (D-Colo.)—who, along with along with Representative Blake Farenthold (R-Texas), formed the Congressional Open Source Technology Caucus this summer—cites constituent correspondence systems, and particularly their keyword-searching function, as a major area in need of tech upgrading. “There is, constantly, functionality we and other members want that doesn’t exist in any of those [constituent mail systems],” Polis says, adding that offices simply don’t have the funds to pay for improvements.
More than just inconvenient and time-consuming, outdated congressional tech can also be insecure. In May, a survey conducted by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation found that just 15 percent of congressional websites are ready for HTTPS, which encrypts information as it travels from a client to a web service, ensuring that no outsider can “eavesdrop” or tamper with the transmitted data. When a constituent types something—a home address, for instance—into an email form on a lawmaker’s website without HTTPS, the transmission of that data is potentially vulnerable. In June, the executive branch launched an initiative to make sure all federal websites use HTTPS, but there is no such effort underway in Congress.
House and Senate disbursement reports show that Congress does spend significantly on technology-related items such as equipment, software maintenance and technical support: From October 1, 2013, to September 30, 2014, the House and Senate spent approximately $145 million and $79 million, respectively, according to an OpenGov Foundation analysis of congressional disbursement reports. But many of those millions go to a limited pool of vendors who must follow policies set by the Committee on House Administration or the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration to be considered for approval before doing things like build websites and manage newsletters.
According to one digital aide working for a U.S. senator, this arrangement can be problematic: “Information about approved products and vendors is somewhat opaque,” she says. Each Senate office has a customer support analyst to act as a go-between with the Senate Sergeant at Arms office should senators require additional products or services. But even so, the staffer says, congressional technology in the Senate is often built to meet the needs of House offices, and then offered to Senate offices as-is. “For Senate offices that handle a larger number of constituents, there can be as few as one to two vendors to choose from that have the capacity to service email-list sizes in the millions,” she says.
Huffstetler identifies a different problem when it comes to the software vendors available to House offices: “They try to build something massive and by doing that, they don’t actually do anything well. … Basically, how the government buys software is not how software is built anymore,” he says. It’s not that a House member can’t request new features from a vendor; it’s just that, according to Huffstetler, vendors “typically aren’t very responsible to one office asking for a feature. They don’t have to be, really, because they’re sanctioned by the House as safe.”
Smaller budgets in the House and Senate make it harder for congressional offices to hire digital staffers who might otherwise be able to introduce or promote new technology. In the executive branch, two tech-promoting entities—the Office of Management and Budget’s year-old U.S. Digital Service and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy—have both successfully recruited from Silicon Valley; Mikey Dickerson, who launched the USDS, is a former Google engineer, and Megan Smith, now the U.S. chief technology officer, has done stints with Google and Apple. But Silicon Valley expats like Huffstetler are rarer in Congress. “What you’re seeing is this lobotomization in Congress—a huge brain drain,” says Daniel Schuman, co-founder of the Congressional Data Coalition, a collection of nonprofits and interest groups calling for improved public access to bills, committee transcripts and other congressional information. “Congress can no longer afford to hire and retain capable staff to do the type of work they need to do. And technology, because it’s new and doesn’t fit into the traditional model of what they’re doing, is in a particularly precarious position.”
As a result, lobbying for technological improvement often falls to individual members of Congress or working groups. In 2012, for instance, the Bulk Data Task Force in Congress formed to increase the amount of legislative data available for bulk download in open XML standards, a markup language that’s easy for people to read and for developers to transform into searchable databases. In 2013, as part of a modernization push in the House, the body’s Office of the Law Revision Counsel made the full U.S. code of laws available in XML. Anyone familiar with looking up proposed and passed legislation on the Library of Congress’ Thomas site will notice that all the information is now stored on a much more user-friendly Congress.gov website, as well.
More recently, the House Republican Conference has been encouraging members to contact entrepreneurs in their own districts. “We’re trying to find ways that we can bring innovative startups that have a technology worth using into the federal government, while being mindful of the security concerns,” says Rebecca Mark, senior adviser on tech policy for McMorris Rodgers. And Polis and Farenthold’s Open Source Technology Caucus will now “promote discussion of the policy implications of open-source initiatives and how open-source solutions can be incorporated into the public sector to make government operations more open, responsive, and cost-effective,” according to a letter the two members circulated in July.
On the Senate side, the Sergeant at Arms office provides the technology vision. But in April, Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) sent a letter to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which holds authority over the Sergeant at Arms office, outlining seven ways Senate technology should be updated. Among them: allowing U.S. senators to pay for online, geo-targeted advertisements on websites like Facebook to announce town halls and other events for constituents, something House members are allowed to do. The senators also pushed for expanding Senate offices’ access to open-source website-building software, which is currently limited to selected vendors. “[T]he most popular and secure tools available have not been approved for use,” the two senators wrote. On top of that, they called for a Senate website similar to Docs.House.gov, a permanent, centralized website for committees to store documents related to committee meetings and hearings. According to Sunlight Foundation policy associate Matt Rumsey, the Senate in particular has been “slow to change, and has a great sense of its own history and traditions and rules. And that makes it harder to push them to innovate and change and embrace new technology.”
Arguably the biggest technology news out of Congress this summer was the rules change in the House that gave members, committees and staff permission to use official resources to obtain open-source software, as well as to contribute software code developed in the House to the public under open-source licenses, something the Obama administration has been doing since 2012. The OpenGov Foundation, Congressional Data Coalition and the Sunlight Foundation were behind the push to get the House Ethics Committee to change its interpretation. Now, if a representative wants to measure how quickly his or her office is responding to constituents’ emails, for instance, instead of contacting an approved vendor for such a service, the office can write the code themselves or ask a third party to do so—assuming the office is using an open-source constituent correspondence system in the first place.
Virtually everyone in the House is now on Facebook and Twitter, and more of them are using Skype, Google Hangouts and Vine to communicate with voters in their districts. But changing the culture around innovating in Congress—bringing it into the 21st century—will require more than just ensuring senators and representatives are sending out tweets and posting status updates; it will require institutional changes.
“The challenge is: How do you embrace new technologies without falling for every fad while still preserving the role and purpose of your institution?” says Matt Lira, recently named senior adviser for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “There is a tremendous opportunity to make Congress better than it’s ever been.”
To do that, Congress will have to balance its core mission as outlined in the Constitution against embracing the risks that go along with trying something new.
“No one working in technology on Capitol Hill is rewarded for taking any risks. They’re only punished for making mistakes,” says Huffstetler. “That’s part of the culture we’re trying to change here.”