Coronavirus Relief: Science and Tech Capacity in Congress

Congress, heal thyself.  

Congressional capacity (or lack thereof) to respond to a global pandemic is on full display.  Members in the House and Senate have tested positive, as have staff. Republicans in the Senate briefly held their majority by one (48-47 with 5 Republican Senators in quarantine).

Members are limited to in-person deliberation and voting at a time of social distancing and self-quarantining.  Congress has historically underfunded its own operations, as well as science and technology assessment.  Federal contracting rules and government systems make it difficult to buy and use commercial, off-the-shelf systems the rest of us take for granted.  

Congressional capacity is “the human and physical infrastructure Congress needs to resolve public problems through legislating, budgeting, holding hearings, and conducting oversight.” As Congress funds millions of individuals and businesses, as well as state and local governments across the country with Trillions of dollars, it must fund its own capacity to respond to this crisis. 

In the coronavirus context, Congress should fund its own capacity, such as:  

  • Technology for its own operations – equipment, software, and cybersecurity for Members and staff to communicate.
  • Teleconferencing software to hold and record meetings where Members and the public can see who is talking.  
  • Science and technology expertise in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to advise Congress on these incredibly complex issues.  
  • Budget and economic expertise in GAO and the Congressional Budget Office to analyze and evaluate the Trillions of dollars Congress will set loose in the economy.  
  • Modern congressional infrastructure to implement the “Fix Congress” committee recommendations.  
  • Oversight and staff expertise to gather data in real-time to monitor and evaluate coronavirus relief funds.  

The decline of congressional expertise is widely acknowledged. Only recently has there been a consensus that Congress needs to fund its own capacity, especially with science and technology assessment. Staff carries on valiantly but are also constrained by lack of experience.  The average age of a legislative assistant is 27 with 1.3 years in their position and 2.8 years in Congress.  

At all times, but especially now, Congress needs the capacity to address challenges with appropriate resources.  As Congress funds hospitals, individuals, businesses, cities, states, and federal agencies in the executive branch during a time of crisis, it must also fund itself.

For more, see this recent article by Taylor J. Swift on the paltry funding for the legislative branch contained in the Coronavirus supplemental.