Anyone who saw Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in April witnessed first-hand what I experienced for six years as a congressional staffer: the Senate and the House of Representatives aren’t up to the task of understanding how technology is reshaping society. Senior Members of Congress didn’t seem to understand how Facebook made money or targeted ads. And some couldn’t distinguish Facebook from an email platform or internet service provider.
I started TechCongress, an initiative that places technologists in Congress through a one-year fellowship, to bridge this gap. We’re now accepting applications for our fourth class of fellows—and if you have a technology background and are interested in helping make Congress more technologically literate, then you should apply.
In 2012, I was working as legislative director for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif), and the House was debating the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). Civil society groups were asking members to vote “no” because the bill didn’t require companies to anonymize users’ personal information when sharing cyber threats with the government.
In order to make a recommendation for how Waxman should vote, I scoured Congress to find someone who could explain how data anonymization worked. In the end, I couldn’t find help on the Hill, and had to turn to a tech company for advice.
That’s because congressional staff with technology expertise by and large don’t exist. In Congress, especially in a member's office, very few people are subject-matter experts. The best staff depend on a network of trusted friends and advisors, built from personal relationships, who can help them break down the complexities of an issue.
Subject matter experts in other areas do exist on the Hill, especially on committees, and these people are important hubs that the rest of the institution relies on for independent, neutral guidance. On health care questions I didn’t need to look far to find expert guidance. Our Health Subcommittee always made it a priority to have at least one physician on staff (we had three when we wrote the Affordable Care Act). Other sectors, like education and national security, are also well-represented on the Hill.
But on tech, Congress lacks real expertise. Of the 3,500 legislative staff on the Hill, I’ve found just seven that have any formal technical training. As a consequence, on CISPA and other tech-related issues, the legislative branch is forced to look to interest groups or the executive branch for advice and counsel.
This isn’t sustainable. Technology touches every issue and every Committee’s jurisdiction. It’s no big secret that Congress is living in the technological dark ages, but a decent, functioning, and independent Congress requires in-house tech expertise. The Zuckerberg hearings put this on full display.
Sadly, Capitol Hill has show little willingness to invest in its own capacity. Office budgets are, on average, down 35 percent in real-dollar terms since 2010, which has forced pay cuts and layoffs of seasoned staff (and making the prospect of bringing on technical expertise even less likely). Congress defunded the Office of Technology Assessment over 20 years ago. Hiring practices are outmoded and antiquated.
Congress needs new expertise, new ideas, and new modes of thinking—but existing structures make it difficult for new voices to get through the door.
The good news is that Congress already has models to help bring in outside experts to incubate their expertise and educate cross-sector leaders. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been sending Health Policy Fellows—like doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators—to Congress since 1973. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) began sending PhDs to Congress that same year. Research from the Hewlett Foundation’s Cybersecurity Initiative makes clear that it’s easier to teach policy to people with technical backgrounds than vice versa, underscoring the effectiveness of this approach.
TechCongress places “technologists”—people with have had backgrounds as varied as mechanical engineering, computer science and military intelligence—to serve on the Hill for a one-year policymaking fellowship. Fellows work directly for a member of Congress or congressional committee, and work on issues like encryption, biometric privacy, autonomous vehicle and drone regulations, surveillance, the future of work, health IT, election security and breach investigations.
Our goals for the program are three-fold. First, we are building a community of cross-sector leaders and providing a world-class education into how government works, so that these leaders can act as a bridge between government and the tech community. Second—recognizing that this is a problem that Congress ultimately has to solve itself—we hope to catalyze the institution to begin hiring for technical expertise and building a pipeline from the tech sector to Capitol Hill for those who want to serve. Third, we are creating a mechanism that can refresh the institution with capable expertise as technology advances, which will help keep government up-to-date.
We’ve had 13 fellows over three classes of the program thus far, serving in both the House and the Senate, with Republicans and Democrats, and on committees and in member offices. We’re now recruiting for our fourth class of fellows, who will serve in Congress from January through December 2019.
It’s easy to be cynical about Congress. It has a lot of problems, many of which have complex and seemingly intractable roots. But it’s also a great place to work, where a legislative staffer can have an outsized impact and contribute to our country. The first branch of government should have the capacity to understand and keep pace with technology, and we’re trying to do our small part to make that possible.