Chapter 6: Modernize and Revitalize House Technology
Congressional technology has come a long way in the past few decades. Today, the majority of constituent services and communication are carried out online; Members and their staff have access to smartphones and laptops for official business; and congressional websites are sleek and interactive. But when compared to the private sector, or even to the executive branch, Congress has fallen behind. The way we communicate with each other continues to evolve on a near-daily basis, but Congress moves at a much slower pace. While technological changes have infiltrated the legislative branch, there is substantial room for growth.
Implementing technological updates can be challenging. Congress’ unique, decentralized structure can make House-wide updates complex and expensive. Most importantly, security concerns for Members, staff and constituent information must be a top priority for any technological change. As Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-5) has noted:
“What we’re seeing is a 19th Century institution often using 20th Century technology to respond to 21st Century problems. We need to change that.”
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, June 5, 2015
The Committee was tasked with making Congress more effective and efficient, and modernizing technology in the House was a top priority for almost everyone the Committee spoke with and heard from over the last 20 months. The need for technological improvements was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the U.S. Capitol complex close and many congressional offices move to a remote operating status with little advance notice.
The Committee focused on specific changes to make technology more innovative and accessible for Member offices by reinstating the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), reconfiguring the House Information Resources (HIR), instituting a new internal task force to connect Member offices with technology experts, and make permanent the Bulk Data Task Force. In addition, the Committee proposed significant House-wide changes, such as removing technology purchases from the Member’s Representational Allowance (MRA)—effectively Members’ office budgets—and making nonpartisan policy information more accessible. As part of its continuity of government and congressional operations recommendations (see Chapter 9), the Committee also recommended that committees incorporate technology and innovative platforms, including electronic voting systems, into daily work.
The 12 recommendations discussed in this chapter were approved by the Committee in two packages. The first 10 recommendations were passed by the Committee on July 25, 2019, and nine were passed by the House of Representatives as a whole on March 10, 2020. Following approval by the House, several of these recommendations were implemented through necessity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These recommendations were formed with the close guidance of Committee Members Rep. Suzan DelBene and Rep. Rodney Davis, as well as the Committee on House Administration. Two additional recommendations were passed by the Committee on September 24, 2020. This chapter will outline these reforms, beginning with an understanding of the importance of technological maintenance and the unique challenges facing the House.
In the past few decades, technology has reshaped how Congress operates and communicates. As discussed in Chapter 8, which focuses on constituent communication and franked mail, the use of email ushered in a new era in Congress. Technology also has a momentous impact on day-to-day House operations. Member websites are interactive, smartphones and laptops are seen in every committee hearing and constituent meeting. When it comes to House security, two-step verification and secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) log-ins no longer require tangible tokens but instead can be conducted via device.
Despite these improvements, however, Congress still lags behind the private sector and executive branch in technology. Political scientists Marci Harris, Claire Abernathy, and Kevin Esterling have referred to this as “the pacing problem”—technological updates around Congress evolve quicker than Congress is able to adopt them. This problem, they argue, presents a three-pronged challenge that prevents Congress from quickly adapting to technological changes outside and within the federal government:
1. The external pacing problem is Congress’ inability to understand and respond to technological evolution in society at large, resulting in policy and oversight that lags behind the pace of technical innovations.
2. The inter-branch pacing problem captures the inability of Congress to keep pace with the executive branch as it employs technology for its own operations, making it hard for Congress to effectively exercise its oversight role and operate as a co-equal branch of government.
3. The internal pacing problem refers to Congress’ near-complete incapacity to make effective use of technology for its internal operations and the day-to-day work of the institution.
These problems are exacerbated by the institutional characteristics of Congress. The decentralized nature of the House makes it difficult to embrace Congress-wide technological reforms. Each Member has the freedom to select the technology best for their office, but at times these independent decisions can be costly and complex. Another important factor is the desire to be responsible with taxpayer dollars; any technological undertaking must be considerate of cost and time to implement, so there are few incentives to take risks with congressional technology. Congress must also consider the immense privacy and security concerns along with any proposed technology. The scope and size of the House, as well as the confidential casework handled by Member offices, makes the institution particularly susceptible to cyberattacks.
Any technology improvements in the legislative branch must be thoughtful, cost-efficient, and secure. The Committee approached the task of improving House technology by listening to technology experts and turning to examples from state legislatures. The Committee held hearings on improving constituent communications and lessons from state legislatures on technological innovation and consulted with organizations like the American Political Science Association and the National Academy of Public Administration. In addition, Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rodney Davis led the Committee by offering unique and practical ideas, influenced by their own professional and congressional experience. As Rep. DelBene noted in a May 20, 2020 virtual meeting, these reforms had particular implications during the COVID-19 remote operating status:
Image 6.1: Rep. Suzan DelBene speaks during a Select Committee hearing.
“The technology side, I think we have been far behind. And I worry that we’re trying to catch up to deal with the pandemic, but we haven’t been really forward looking in terms of what district offices need.”
Rep. Suzan DelBene, May 20, 2020
Ultimately, the Committee recommended 12 changes to make the House more technologically modern and efficient.
Reestablish an improved Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to study and recommend emerging technologies, provide nonpartisan information and policy analysis to Member offices, support legislative branch agencies in their examination of new technologies, focus on general oversight and policy, and facilitate peer reviews of potential new technologies.
While Congress will undoubtedly continue to face challenges of “the Pacing Problem” given the nature of the institution, the reforms outlined in this chapter usher in a new era of technology in the House. The recommendations outlined in this chapter not only will save taxpayer dollars, but free Members and their staff to spend more time doing what they came to Congress to do: work for the American people.
The Committee worked to make it easier for every office to have access to updated technology, IT assistance, and outside vendors. By rethinking and rebranding the OTA, and bolstering the existing practices of HIR, the burden of technology procurement and management will be lifted from individual offices and will implement new practices to ensure Congress does not fall behind.
These reforms are not a one-size-fits-all approach to technology. They specifically create opportunities for Members to continue to innovate on their own if desired, allowing individual offices to lead the way with creativity and new ideas. This flexibility is key to both improving technology in the House and ensuring that every Member has access to the technology necessary to succeed.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the remote-work period that ensued, ushered in several of these recommendations, but there is still room for improvement. Passage of H.Res. 756 in the House, which contains the majority of these recommendations, is an uplifting sign that these recommendations will usher in a new era of more efficient and effective lawmaking.