The Crystal Ball on Funding for the Office of Technology Assessment

Earlier this year, the House’s Appropriations Committee favorably reported a Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for FY 2020 that contained $6m in start-up funds for the Office of Technology Assessment spread out over two years. Now that the House and Senate have agreed upon top line spending numbers for the federal government, where does all this stand?

As you might recall, the House of Representatives passed 10 out of 12 appropriations bills, but the Legislative Branch bill was not among them. It got hung up on the House floor over an unrelated fight over providing members of Congress with a cost of living increase. Continue reading “The Crystal Ball on Funding for the Office of Technology Assessment”

Rep. Hoyer Speaks on Renewing Faith in Government

Yesterday, House Minority Whip Steny Hower (D-MD) gave an interesting speech on renewing the American people’s faith in government. He ticked off four major areas for reform: campaign finance reform, voting rights, redistricting reform, and government technology.

While there’s a lot to digest in his speech, I want to highlight the part that concerns government technology. Continue reading “Rep. Hoyer Speaks on Renewing Faith in Government”


The Library of Congress announced that the legislative information website THOMAS is scheduled to stop functioning on July 5, with to replace its functionality. This will allow the Library to focus all its energy on instead of having also to maintain a very awkward, 21-year-old website.

I’m sure that many news reports will give credit to Newt Gingrich for THOMAS. It is true that he was largely responsible for the political lifting required to build the site, which is a big deal. It was not his brain child, however, and a fair amount of technical work was previously performed under the democrats, who lost power in 1994/5. There were prior efforts to make legislative information available to the general public, including a wrongheaded effort by GPO to sell the data and the clever use of GOPHER to release data, which I dare not try to describe. Continue reading “So Long, THOMAS”

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


Congress Can Fix Itself … With A Little Help

Part III: Bootstrapping Congress Into the Digital Age

How can Congress muster sufficient resources to properly fund its essential functions in an era of asphyxiating budgets? Unsurprisingly for a 227-year-old institution, congressional operations often are inefficient, expensive, or no longer necessary. There’s not a lot of money there, but there’s enough to invest in greater productivity. Moving to a digital congress, and finding cost savings in doing so, is a way forward in transforming how Congress operates.

For example, the House already has moved to publish the House Calendar online so it does not have to physically print and distribute copies to all offices. The same is true of printing and distributing bills, the U.S. code, and other documents. Money saved by making these operational changes can go towards supporting process reforms. To some extent, Congress is moving down this path.

The first phase in the move to a digital Congress arose when the House of Representatives invested a modest amount of money into modernizing its publishing operations — moving from paper to data management. By publishing data online and decreasing print operations, the House continues to fulfill the needs of its traditional internal customers while making possible new uses of congressional data. This changeover was enabled by a broader cultural transformation in favor of digital information sharing, which is reflected in the attitudes of newer members and younger staff. (This spirit is best embodied by the annual Legislative Data & Transparency Conference and Congressional Hackathon).

These investments would not be politically possible, however, but for the advocacy of outside organizations for a transparent Congress, which creates a virtuous cycle. Transparency groups push for greater data accessibility through the use of digital technology and hold organizing events. Congress responds by bringing together internal stakeholders and allocating funds to modernize technology to meet that need. The modernization effort saves money, improves internal efficiency, and results in the release of more data. The release of data results in new tools being built and prompts transparency groups and businesses to push for further technology reforms.

The replacement of print publication with data publication has paved the way for further improvements. It has generated savings for reinvestment, and crucially in an institution built upon personal relationships, it has built trust between internal and external stakeholders.

Phase two of the transformation to a digital congress arises from how the publication of data allows improvements to traditionally time-consuming activities. For example, the preparation of side-by-side for proposed legislation, which compares two different versions of the same bill, can now be done automatically. The production of reports from hearings will soon take days instead of months, saving time and money and releasing useful data quickly. The House rules require the text of amendments to bills scheduled for consideration on the House floor be published online as a way of meeting internal notice requirements. It soon will be possible to see in real-time how an amendment will change a bill or a bill would change a law.

This revolution in the usefulness of information provided to staff and the general public supports reallocation of limited staff resources to engaging in the legislative process — not just trying to keep abreast of what is happening and responding to outside pressure.

Phase three of a transformation to a digital congress will come from expanding the kinds of information processed by Congress as data. It includes pulling in reports from the Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Office, Congressional Budget Office, as well as testimony before Congress and other legislative documents. It should expand to information pulled in from the executive branch as well. Some of this data analysis will take place inside Congress, but much of it will be performed by outside stakeholders — both non-profit and for-profit organizations.

As a practical matter, while it is politically infeasible to significantly increase the number of Congressional staff performing legislative functions, providing staff access to high quality information makes them more effective and efficient. It is the equivalent of hiring staff with legislative expertise. In addition, increased cost savings takes off some of the pressure if and when Congress cuts legislative operations funding.

This virtuous information technology cycle also can occur with how member offices process information from constituents — especially letters and email — and how they push this information out to the public. The endless hours of data entry and drudgery to respond to repetitive correspondence can be reduced, freeing staff time to engage in more thoughtful way. It also supports innovation in how congressional offices meet the needs of constituents.

Next: The Path Forward Towards a Stronger Congress →

← Previous: How Congress Broke Itself

Part I, published on Monday, describes a thought experiment on legislative dysfunction. Part II, released yesterday, discusses how Congress broke itself. And Part IV, scheduled for tomorrow, sets forth concrete ideas on the way forward towards a stronger Congress.

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Save the Date: Second Congressional Hackathon Oct. 23

The Second Congressional Hackathon will take place at the U.S. Capitol on October 23 from 10–5. Hosted by Majority Leader McCarthy and Democratic Whip Hoyer, the hackathon is intended to explore how we can modernize Congress–from open data to updating constituent engagement.

To RSVP, go here.

The First Congressional Hackathon–#InHackWeTrust–was a great event, with tons of information about the ongoing work of the House and, equally as important, it presented a fantastic opportunity for real conversations between staff, technologists, and advocates. I wrote about it here.

With the same offices behind this hackathon, we have high hopes. Since the first congressional hackathon, there has been a series of public meetings and conferenceshosted by the Clerk of the House, the launch of new pro-transparency congressional policies and tools, the creation of the open source caucus, and a civil society-organized congressional hackathon entitled #Hack4Congress. With so many new resources available (and more coming soon), and a spirit of cooperation between congressional staff and the public, I cannot wait to see what can be accomplished.

We will post more information as it becomes available.

Cross-posted from the Congressional Data Coalition.

Save the Date: Second Congressional Hackathon ← P R E V I O U S

The Grassroots and the Battle Over Encryption

Remarks delivered at the #CryptoSummit on July 15, 2015.

• • •

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me.

Congratulations to ACCESS for holding such a successful summit on the vital issue of encryption. Encryption is part of a suite of technology and privacy issues that have kept things interesting up on Capitol Hill. As we saw recently, the grassroots energy and activism around surveillance and net neutrality provided an educational opportunity for members of Congress.

Right now, policymakers are in the process of mangling encryption. A senator, who I won’t name, recently compared encryption to poisonous waste dumped into our rivers and streams. He argued that companies pushing for encryption are harming the public.

It’s not entirely surprising that some members of Congress are getting this issue wrong, at least right now. Congress has seriously diminished its ability to understand complex policy issues. The number of committee staff in the House has been cut in half over the last 3 decades. Expert agencies inside the legislative branch have been cut to the bone. Congress is at the mercy of special interests for information and guidance. And no interest is more special than the defense establishment, which literally has offices on Capitol Hill and places staff in member offices.

This is why grassroots pressure is so important. It forces members of Congress to move away from simplistic narratives. It drives them out of the bubble. It forces them to engage with the people most expert on encryption — the people in this room — and with the millions behind us. Grassroots pressure also helps change the narrative about encryption and widen the range of policy options.

For example, last year’s ResetTheNet campaign encouraged developers to make their websites more secure from prying … and encouraged Internet users to use NSA-resistant privacy tools. By getting more people to use encryption, the ResetTheNet campaign worked towards three important goals:

First, it made the use of encryption more commonplace, showing that is not scary or complicated.

Second, it taught how the widespread use of encryption can protect everyone from surveillance, like mass inoculation against virulent diseases.

Third, it encouraged policymakers to find a solution that is proportionate and appropriate to the problem it is trying to address.

A campaign raising awareness around encryption, no matter how clever, is only half the battle. People must connect encryption to bigger fights and broader organizing efforts. To win on encryption, it must be seen as a brick in the wall against an overly-intrusive government and other hackers.

And that wall must be built upon opposition to the USA PATRIOT Act, to skepticism around the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, to deep concern on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, to dread around Executive Order 12333, and so on.

We have won unprecedented victories lately by educating and organizing around these issues. Hundreds of thousands of people weighed in on mass surveillance. We must apply those lessons to encryption, and help people connect the dots. They must come to understand the fight is about the future of privacy, about the future of technology, and about the future of democracy.

We have made good headway, but there is so much more to do. Thank you.

{ Like this? You may also like Sunsetting the Politics of TerrorWhat Our Mass Surveillance Debate Gets Wrong, & Senate Torture Report: The Senate Speaks }

— Written by Daniel Schuman