Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part IV: The Way Forward Towards A Stronger Congress

How do we use technology to build congressional capacity to perform its work? In part, the work of the Congressional Data Coalition is powering this virtuous cycle in partnership with Congress. Congress works best with a single entity that represents public stakeholders, and the Congressional Data Coalition is a trusted partner. Greater support of the work of the coalition will speed the process up and provide support to the Senate to follow the path trod by the House as well as encourage the House to go further.

Congress, however, still is not equipped to think systematically about how the information revolution can transform the way it governs. For example, with respect to congressional access to information:

  • Congress requires agencies to provide it thousands of reports, but no effort is made to gather the reports in a central location so that all committees and staff can benefit from the reporting.
  • Information relevant to Congressional activities is not appropriately contextualized. For example, if a staffer is examining a particular bill, legislative information systems should 1) automatically identify others bills that have the same or similar language over multiple congresses; 2) surface testimony and committee reports associated with those bills; 3) and identify GAO reports, CRS reports, and Dear Colleague letters that cover that subject matter; and other relevant information.
  • The work product of the Congressional Research Service focuses on producing reports and answering discrete questions. Encouraging analysts to aggregate topical information — think tank reports, news stories, agency statements, hearing information — and regularly share it with staff, perhaps in the form of a email blast, can prevent member offices from duplicating effort and raise the overall quality of work of staffers covering an issue area.

This is not pie in the sky. A free web service called “scout” already provides alerts for any bill, floor statement, federal regulation, state legislation, or GAO report that contains a search term. But sustainable, useful technology requires internal and external investments, changes to congressional rules (including addressing gift and open source provisions), and sustained interaction and organizing of congressional staff.

Congress also must increase its awareness of how the institution has changed over the last half century. It must:

  • Examine patterns in staff pay and retention, to see where deficiencies have developed;
  • Reconsider its committee structure, perhaps reviving a Joint Committee on the Operations of Congress to examine reform options, to make sure it streamlines its operations and is able to take advantage of new tools;
  • Systematically examine congressional expenditures for duplication and unnecessary and hidden expenses;
  • Gain an understanding of the data and records the institution holds, who is responsible for them, and how they are shared with others; and
  • Explore whether its ethics process is functioning to prevent and deter misbehavior, provide incentives for good behavior, and when necessary provide appropriate remedial action.

An examination of hidden assets and impediments to action can make it possible to work to strengthen the capacity and incentives of Congress to function as an institution equal to the executive branch.

Finally, Congress must improve its technology-building capacity. This includes the capacity to build tools that facilitate congressional work, the fostering of a collaborative environment among the different units within Congress, and collaboration with outside entities.

With respect to workflow management, these tools could include:

  • Handling constituent services and correspondence;
  • Tracking internal work processes, such as correspondence/ documents received and sent;
  • Managing letters to and from agencies;
  • Generating hearings and reports; and
  • Managing the official website and other means of communication.

And, with respect to legislating and oversight, these tools could include:

  • Co-drafting legislation (using techniques pioneered by the OpenGov Foundation);
  • Showing how amendment change a bill/ bill changes a law (currently under development by the House in its Amendment Impact Program);
  • Access to data about legislation (underway as part of the Bulk Data Task Force);
  • Releasing substantive information about committee activity;
  • Helping members to identify likely allies; and
  • Providing important contextualization of data.

• • •

Congress lacks the will, expertise, and cohesiveness to properly oversee the executive branch or fulfill its legislative duties. A congressional staffer with a few years of experience is responsible for overseeing an executive branch agency whose staff have been there much longer, get paid more, and have greater resources at their disposal. Moreover, a congressional staffer has greater constraints arising from the politically divided nature of Congress. Any effort to legislate hinges on the support provided by lobbyists and the special interests they represent.

The reforms described above strengthen the capacity of Congress to do its job. They allow a shifting of resources that provide staff to have greater insight into their work and the functional equivalent of additional assistance. They also provide a bipartisan basis for congressional offices to bridge the divide and work together. This not just theory: we have seen it happen.

Transparency is one of the few easily attainable bipartisan policy areas. Passage of the DATA Act, a federal spending transparency bill, was on a true bipartisan basis, as has been the collaboration on public access to legislative data. Just about every member of Congress has an interest in making Congress work better, but we have to provide the right circumstances to allow them to act on their better impulses. In addition, greater transparency and better technology in support of congressional activities strengthens insight into what is and is not working in Congress and gives the internal stakeholders and the public leverage to support the necessary changes.

Strengthening congressional transparency and capacity alone will not solve what ails the legislative branch. But it is a viable path forward to create the space necessary for that reform to happen.

• • •

Part I, published on Monday, describes a thought experiment on legislative dysfunction. Part II, released on Tuesday, discusses how Congress broke itself. Part III, published yesterday, explains how to bootstrap Congress into the digital age.

— Written by Daniel Schuman