While Congressional representation has not historically been demographically “representative” of the United States writ large—by gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status—it has adapted its skill set to the prevailing needs of the time. This has served us well throughout history. But today, as we step out of the 115th Congress and into the 116th, despite becoming more representative in demographic terms, Congress faces a historically low skill set match. We must do a better job selecting candidates for office who bring the requisite knowledge to deal with the challenges of our era.
To understand Congress’ historical ability to address national problems via unique skill sets, we need to define what makes up the eras of U.S. history. There are innumerable ways 242 years can be divided, but for simplicity, we break it into four parts:
- The Young Republic (1776–1815)
- The Industrial Era (1816–1914)
- The War, Depression, and Post-War Era (1915–1980)
- The Information Era (1981-present)
The Young Republic
The early days of the federal republic were defined by the need to construct the laws and institutions that would serve as foundations for the government. This included the authoring of the Constitution, ratification of 12 out of 27 amendments, the formation of numerous federal agencies and the authorities within, and the Louisiana Purchase.
In modern parlance, this was a time to “lawyer up.” And, if Congressional representation is any indication, that’s exactly what our young nation did. In 1815, 63.2 percent of the members of Congress came into office with a prior career practicing law—up from just 48.4 percent in the United States’ first session of Congress.
The Industrial Era
During the majority of the 19th century into the early 20th century, the United States experienced a 100-year Industrial Age, bookended by the spread of textile mills in the 1810s and the beginning of World War I in 1914. This was an era of explosive growth driven by brilliant scientists (Carver, Curie), financiers (Morgan, Rockefeller), businesspeople (Carnegie, Ford), inventors (Wright Brothers, Edison), and statesmen (Lincoln, Douglas, and Anthony).
Lawyers will always aspire to be politicians (this is objectively true and unarguable), but legal careers peaked in 1847 at 79.4 percent and saw a significant and consistent decline in representation through the end of the era, as backgrounds in business and public safety saw the greatest spikes during the same time period. Business experience in Congress peaked in the 1860s and again in the 1910s—just above 30 percent of Congress members had business careers prior to serving on Capitol Hill.
This was of particular import due to the rise of organized labor (The Knights of Labor was founded in 1869), concerns were beginning to be raised about the impacts of rapid growth (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published in 1904), and urban planning became a necessary role of government. Careers in public safety also saw an expected rise around the time of the Civil War as the nation was torn apart, brought back together, and the march toward civil rights began.
The War, Depression, and Post-War Era
With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the Industrial Era came to an end as the major world powers hunkered down and applied the vast economic resources they had developed over the previous 100 years to the enterprise of war. Business would have to wait.
As in previous eras, Congressional representation mirrored the needs of society. As law continued to decline and business followed, public safety boomed as a career, rising to 62.8 percent in 1973 and never falling below 55 percent through 1980. Congress needed people with experience in war, foreign policy, restoration, nation-building, and espionage. And that’s what they got.
Nearly all critical issues being considered by Congress today must consider the implications of technology, from health care to the justice system.
No longer a strong suit, the legal foundations became sloppy. No more alcohol! Okay, alcohol is fine. Let’s add five new cabinet-level federal agencies and give Washington, D.C., electoral representation (but why? taxing people without representation was so much fun). And there was Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, Contras v. Sandinistas (national sovereignty be damned!), and other extravaganzas. The U.S. also tried to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar, but that was pretty cool, so we’ll give it a pass.
The Information Era
NASA launched the first GPS satellite NAVSTAR 1 in 1978 and IBM released the PC in 1981, and it quickly became clear the nation had entered a new era defined by technology. Personal computer adoption skyrocketed to more than half of U.S. households by the end of the century. And the technological surge hasn’t stopped, even through three historic crashes of the stock market.
In fact, nearly all critical issues being considered by Congress today must consider the implications of technology, from health care to the justice system.
And the tech sector is at the head of economic growth today. FAANG makes up more than 11 percent of the S&P 500, and the five largest public companies by market cap are all in the technology industry: Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook.
But instead of Congress shifting to match the needs of society as it has in the past, we find ourselves at a historic impasse. Representation of law careers continues to decline, public safety is rapidly declining, business has stayed mostly flat, and civil service—i.e., career politicians—is the only category with a meaningful increase in representation. Three members of Congress have computer science degrees, a handful worked as software company executives, and less than a dozen have technical degrees of any kind. Technological skills barely appear as a blip.
This will not come as a surprise to those who watched the Zuckerberg hearings with extreme discomfort. This problem was exacerbated with the elimination of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1995, the purpose of which was to advise Congress on critical issues surrounding the development of new technologies. This is something we may want to consider bringing back. In addition, Congressional staff size and compensation have steadily declined since the late 1970s, a likely detractor for talented people who may otherwise have contributed.
It will be hard for representatives to make critical decisions about the future when they are unprepared to explain the present.
Members of Congress have devoted their lives to public service, so it would be unfair to haphazardly lob criticisms over the wall. Governing and lawmaking are their own discrete skill set; we should not simply replace all proficiencies in Congress with tech expertise. Despite the overtures of overzealous entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, let’s not con ourselves into believing that technology is the solitary cure—or cause—for what ails our nation. But we need to be better prepared for tackling the major technological issues we face.
Why does this matter? Answers to this question are challenging to rank in any logical or straightforward order. But it will be hard for representatives to make critical decisions about the future when they are unprepared to explain the present. Where there are knowledge gaps, there will always be special interest groups and lobbyists to fill them. By not electing members who can better represent the needs of this era, we are sacrificing our democracy to raw and brutish capitalism where “he who pays wins.” Given Congress’s lack of preparation for the Information Era, it should be unsurprising that lobbying dollars have more than doubled in the last two decades.
This is not a partisan issue. The limited tech bench in Congress sits across party lines. In just the past year, a variety of organizations have popped up working on creating awareness around this gap. TechCongress is working on inserting tech minds into “tours of duty” with staffs on Capitol Hill. Future Congress is building an advocacy group partnered with organizations all over the political spectrum to call attention to the issue.
Getting more technical expertise in D.C. will take years, but there are several actionable ways we can begin bridging the gap between Capitol Hill and Silicon Valley.
- Groom technical talent for congressional positions: Both parties should begin actively grooming technical talent to run for office in the coming election cycles, much like the Democratic Party has done with veterans in this year’s midterm elections.
- Committee membership and some leadership roles have historically required a great deal of tenure. Party leadership should consider moving beyond this traditional requirement to get people with required technical skills into positions of legislative influence, much like the Department of Defense has done with direct commissioning and “Highly Qualified Expert” roles.
- People in government shouldn’t be afraid to learn about, or work with, technology companies. Although some companies have refused to work with the government on ethical grounds, there are many still trying to leverage their technology to help America. We must break out of old habits of going back to the same antiquated companies over and over again, settling for subpar results.
- Reestablish the Office of Technology Assessment and support programs like TechCongress for staffing. These could both be simple and cost-effective ways to get congressional staffs access to unbiased (non-lobbyist-fed) information to help inform decision-making. The pay gap may be insurmountable for some, but as has been demonstrated by the United States Digital Service, GSA 18F, and others, many people are willing to work for mission over money—we should be focused on them.
For those who currently work in the tech community, it is worth noting that although working with the government has become taboo in Silicon Valley, it remains critical to work together to solve the nation’s most pressing issues. Those working in the technology industry shouldn’t be afraid of working with—or for—the government.
We all want democracy to thrive. So as you make your voice heard and post a photo of your “I Voted” sticker on social media, ask yourself if the person you voted for even understands what those things are. There are a lot of paths toward a future-oriented Congress, and as citizens of a (generally) well-functioning democracy, it is our civic duty to build them. Even when you disagree. Especially when you disagree.