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Technology and transparency: the path to a modern Congress?

We’re starting to see the direction of a committee dedicated to changing Capitol Hill.

Derek Kilmer
Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), chair of the House Select Committee on Congressional Modernization
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At a time when Congress has arguably been more contentious than ever, the House Select Committee on Congressional Modernization has been unusually harmonious. Discussions have not followed partisan lines, while witnesses chat amiably with committee members. This is partly due to the committee, so far, avoiding controversial issues such as decentralizing Congress by moving power away from the party leadership. The committee does not have legislative power, and it can only make recommendations with a two-thirds vote.

On May 23, the committee made its first round of recommendations, suggesting that Congress should:

  • Adopt a consistent data structure throughout all parts of the legislative process in order to make it easier to track development and evolution of legislation
  • Develop software that shows in real time how proposals would amend legislation and current law
  • Update how information is provided to the public
  • Develop a database to show whether federal agencies have current funding authorization
  • Create a public, centralized database to provide results of committee votes

Most of these recommendations would not profoundly change the operations of Congress. They share two themes: a desire to increase transparency and a faith in technology.

A May 10 hearing on transparency drew out differences on the topic. Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress, Josh Tauberer of GovTrack, and Bob Reeves, deputy clerk of the House of Representatives, discussed ways to use technology to improve transparency, as much within the House as for citizens outside the institution. They discussed creating a legislative branch chief data officer to improve congressional and public access to legislative information and to facilitate the emergence of legislative data standards. They also proposed improving access to lobbying data.

But Frances Lee of the University of Maryland argued that transparency has often created unintended consequences. She argued that open committee hearings and recorded votes in committee have mostly benefited lobbyists, given that most ordinary citizens pay little attention to the legislative process. But the committee members and the witnesses seemed united by the belief that Congress needs greater internal transparency so that rank-and-file members are better apprised of the happenings in their own body: the content of legislation, the scheduling of votes, the functioning of committees.

On June 5, the committee considered the matter of improving constituent outreach by congressional offices. Right now, Capitol Hill staff are confronting a deluge of constituent email, but much of it is prompted by activist groups and is relatively low-quality. In turn, congressional staff find that most of their responses to constituents are not read.

Witnesses — including Brad Fitch of the Congressional Management Foundation, Marci Harris of PopVox, and Michael Neblo of Ohio State University — offered a variety of solutions. Online town halls could offer more in-depth engagement between members and constituents. Fitch called for a task force of current congressional press secretaries to devise strategies to update constituent communication. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) and the witnesses agreed on the insight that, due to the decline in local news, many citizens only pay attention to the federal government. As such, members of Congress often find themselves contacted about purely local issues.

All participants seemed united in their belief that Capitol Hill was far behind the times technologically. Congressional offices could share information about innovations, while Congress could buy computer equipment in bulk.

Other issues could spark greater controversy. Many observers see the low pay for congressional staff as one of the factors that diminish congressional effectiveness. Increasing salaries for congressional staff could potentially require increasing congressional pay, an always-controversial idea. In their testimony before the committee, members of Congress made a variety of arguments in favor of increasing pay for congressional staff: the need to compete with lobbying firms, the private sector, and the executive branch; the desire to have a more diverse pool of congressional staff; the high cost of living in Washington, DC. But the recent revolt against increasing congressional pay makes such a shift seem unlikely.

The committee has discussed improving the hiring process, paying interns, diversifying staff, and improving staff benefits — goals that may pose less political danger. Members, both former and current, have discussed the desire to decentralize power away from the party leadership, But so far, the committee has not dwelled on this issue.

The select committee will continue its work over the year. Even if its recommendations do not become law, it can still add to the broader movement to restore congressional capacity. And even if the committee does not propose any changes that will radically alter the functioning of Congress, gradual improvements may still be worthwhile. Congress watchers are eagerly awaiting further recommendations from the committee.