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.