How Congress Got Dumb on Tech—and How It Can Get Smart

To take on the likes of Facebook and Google, lawmakers will need to upgrade their own tech team.

Chuck Schumer, one of the most powerful people in Washington, uses a flip phone. The kind of phone with a tiny screen and real buttons, designed for making actual phone calls, not writing emails. But then, the Senate minority leader rarely emails, telling the New York Times a few years ago that he sends about one every four months. In case manufacturers stop making his favorite flip phone, Schumer has stockpiled ten of them. 

Schumer’s practically a techie compared to Lindsey Graham, though. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee told NBC’s Meet the Press in 2015, “I don’t email . . . I’ve never sent one.” The Luddite tendencies extend to other members of Congress. When Senator Richard Shelby needs to write to his staff, he favors handwritten notes. “I’ve been here a while; I’m a little older than y’all,” he told Politico, by way of justification. When Paul Ryan paid a visit in 2014 to Jim Sensenbrenner, who at the time was a senior member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, he found the congressman tapping out letters on an IBM Selectric II. 

These old-fashioned habits may be charming coming from your grandparents, but your grandparents aren’t charged with legislating on cryptocurrency, regulating autonomous vehicles, or protecting consumers from data breaches. Members’ technical naïveté goes beyond their choice in phones and onto the floor of Congress. When experts testified before Congress last May about the promise of quantum computing—which could radically accelerate research into everything from pharmaceuticals to machine learning to carbon sequestration—Illinois Representative Adam Kinzinger admitted, half-jokingly, to the panel, “I can understand about 50 percent of the things you say.” 

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai testified before Congress last December, Texas Representative Ted Poe attempted to grill him on how the company tracks users’ location. “I have an iPhone,” said Poe, who has since retired. “If I move from here and go over there and sit with my Democrat friends . . . does Google track my movement?” Increasingly exasperated at what seemed like Pichai’s evasions, Poe repeatedly asked, “Yes or no?” But, of course, Apple, not Google, manufactures iPhones, and whether or not the company was tracking Poe wasn’t a yes-or-no question. It would depend on which apps he had downloaded, whether his GPS was enabled, and so on. Nailing down how Google collects user data has important policy implications, but by bungling some basic facts about the technology Poe let Pichai off the hook. 

This lack of tech savvy causes problems well beyond wrangling with the Facebooks and Googles of the world, for the simple reason that tech is baked into all policy areas. Regulators worry that software installed in medical devices could be hacked. Lawyers and activists are concerned about bias in the algorithms used to assess bail. Legislators who want to fight climate change need to know which renewable energy sources are ready for commercialization. But the dearth of expertise hamstrings Congress throughout the entire policy process—from deciding which issues to prioritize, to drafting bills, to exercising oversight. 

From the 1970s through the mid-’90s, Congress had its own think tank to help it legislate on technical issues: the Office of Technology Assessment. But it was killed off as part of Newt Gingrich’s assault on government expertise.

Of course, nobody expects members of Congress to be experts on everything—that’s why they have staff. The problem is that congressional staffers don’t always know much more than their bosses. They, too, need advice from disinterested experts to walk them through the intricacies of technical issues—and for the most part, they’re not getting it. While a recent survey found that 81 percent of senior staffers thought that access to “high-quality, nonpartisan, policy expertise within the legislative branch” was “very important,” only 24 percent were “very satisfied” with the current situation.

This wasn’t always the case. From the 1970s through the mid-’90s, Congress had its own think tank to help it legislate on technical issues: the Office of Technology Assessment. But the OTA was killed off in 1995 by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich as part of his assault on government expertise. Ever since, Congress has struggled to navigate science and technology issues, with occasionally disastrous results. 

The good news is that efforts to resurrect the agency are under way, with the newly Democratic-controlled House pushing to secure funding for it this year. Even some Republicans and conservative think tanks have warmed to the idea. Getting smart on tech is actually something this Congress could do. In the meantime, another government agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), is growing its tech team, too. 

But the OTA, GAO, or any other three-letter government agency will only fix half the problem of Congress’s tech brain drain. The other half has to do with the overall congressional workforce. The Gingrich revolution not only wiped out the OTA; it also decimated congressional staff ranks, and their numbers have never fully recovered. That’s a major reason why Congress has become so dysfunctional. Staffers shape what information their bosses get, take meetings with interest groups, and participate in important negotiations. But congressional staff these days tend to be young, low-paid, and thinly spread—and those with technology backgrounds are as uncommon as, well, flip phones. To deal with an ever more technologically complex world, Congress needs a critical mass of staffers who bring science and tech experience to the table.

The idea that Congress should have its own dedicated corps of STEM nerds goes back to the 1960s. At the time, Washington was pouring more and more research money into everything from supersonic transport to the Apollo space program. Meanwhile, the executive branch was giving itself new agencies to help with tech and science. Congress, however, lagged behind. That asymmetry gave federal agencies the upper hand when they came to the Hill asking for money. Eventually, Congress got fed up. “We are not the rubber stamps of the administrative branch of the government,” said Democratic Representative George Miller during a hearing. So, in 1972, Congress created its own nonpartisan think tank: the Office of Technology Assessment. 

During its heyday, the small agency conducted research on everything from artificial hearts to solar technology, functioning as a kind of early-warning signal about emerging technologies and what policy options were available to deal with them. After an evenly split bipartisan panel approved the topic, the agency’s in-house team would select and work with top outside experts to produce the reports, which would then undergo peer review. They put the issues in terms that resonated with nonexperts. “You are sitting with your wife in the doctor’s office, waiting to be told what to do next to get your wife pregnant,” read a memorably vivid report on fertility treatments. “You are wondering how bad your sperm are.”

The OTA paid for itself many times over by helping the federal government dodge boondoggles. But it drew the ire of conservatives when it raised serious doubts about the Reagan administration’s proposed “Star Wars” missile defense system.

Lawmakers could also turn to the cadre of OTA wonks for help as they developed policy. As an article in the Federal Times put it, “In a town where unimpeachable sources are oh-so-hard to come by, OTA has managed to secure a position near the top of the list.” It even gained international respect; in an inversion of the usual dynamic, a delegation from the Netherlands came to study the OTA so they could replicate it back home. 

Congress’s “Defense Against the Dumb,” as one lawmaker called it, played an important behind-the-scenes role on everything from small, uncontroversial bills to landmark legislation. Sometimes it saved lives. When Richard Nixon’s defense secretary James Schlesinger pitched an intercontinental ballistic missile strategy with surprisingly low potential casualty estimates, Congress asked the OTA to run the numbers. The agency found that the Defense Department had made some overly optimistic assumptions, forcing the department to revise its estimate. A succession of OTA studies in the 1980s and ’90s found that mammograms and pap smears, among other preventative treatments, provided large health benefits for relatively low cost—so Congress decided Medicare should cover them. After an OTA report questioned the accuracy of polygraph tests, Congress banned most private employers from using them. 

It also paid for itself many times over by helping the federal government dodge boondoggles. When the Carter administration wanted to invest $86 billion in synthetic fuels, for example, the OTA found that the technology wouldn’t be a cost-effective alternative. Congress, persuaded in part by those findings, pulled more than $60 billion of the project’s budget, according to former OTA assistant director Peter Blair. (For comparison’s sake, you could multiply the agency’s 1995 budget by 2,000 and still come in well under $60 billion.)

In the 1980s, however, the team drew the ire of conservatives by commissioning a report that raised serious doubts about the Reagan administration’s proposed “Star Wars” missile defense system. “The prospect that emerging ‘Star Wars’ technologies, when further developed, will provide a perfect or near-perfect defense system,” concluded the report’s author, Ashton Carter, a physicist who would later serve as President Obama’s defense secretary, “is so remote that it should not serve as the basis of public expectation or national policy.” Anger at this rebuke smoldered in conservative circles for a decade.

The chance for revenge finally presented itself in the mid-’90s, when Republicans won a majority in both houses for the first time in forty years. Gingrich ascended to his role as speaker, looking to cut the size of government, centralize power under his own office, and remove any impediments to his “Contract With America” policy
agenda—especially staff experts who might raise pesky questions. Not only was the OTA unpopular with conservatives, but it also made an easy target: the agency primarily served committee chairs and their staffs, so cutting it wouldn’t directly impact too many lawmakers. Though it still had substantial bipartisan support—one attempt to save it garnered forty-eight Republican votes—Gingrich prevailed, and Congress shrank the agency’s budget to zero. Staff threw a going-away party, according to a former OTA researcher, donning T-shirts that said, “The Librarian of Congress got a new appropriation and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.” Then they gave their furniture and computers to other agencies, and turned out the lights. As one Democratic lawmaker said on the day it closed, “OTA proved to be too smart for a new Congress that is in love with simple answers.”

Rush Holt is a smart guy. He’s got a PhD in physics from New York University and helped run the largest research facility at Princeton. He served as an arms control expert for the State Department. He’s won Jeopardy five times, even beating IBM’s Watson supercomputer in one matchup. And when he ran for Congress, with no prior experience in public office, he became the first Democrat to win his central New Jersey district in thirty years. 

When Holt got to the Hill in 1999, he discovered an alarming lack of awareness about science and technology. He had worked in Congress as a staffer when the OTA existed, and now that he had the legislator’s pen, he set about trying to bring the agency back. In 2001, he introduced a bill to reestablish the office. It got plenty of cosponsors, but not enough support to pass. He tried again, year after year, with the same results. “Most members of Congress didn’t—and still don’t—know what they’re missing,” he said recently. 

In the meantime, the need for good tech advice only continued to grow. That showed in 2003, when Congress tried to do something about the threat of email spam, which was taking over inboxes. (In 2001, spam made up 7 percent of all email traffic; by December 2003, it was almost 60 percent.) The states had created a patchwork of regulations that cried out for a national solution. Congress could have decided to make spam illegal—just think where we’d be now. Instead, it took a little nibble, targeting one type of spam and leaving the rest untouched, while preempting stronger efforts by some states like California. Rates of spamming actually went up in the months after the bill, not down. It was so bad that a law review article speculated, “Was Congress Actually Trying to Solve the Problem or Add to It?”

A revived OTA wouldn’t fully solve Congress’s tech problem. Travis Moore, who runs a technology fellowship for Congress, looked into how many of the thousands of full-time congressional staffers have technical experience from either academia or industry. He found nine.

In 2006, Holt helped organize a hearing about science advice in the House of Representatives, giving OTA opponents a chance to air their concerns. Enter longtime OTA foe Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who has claimed that climate change is a “fraud” designed to create a global government. During the hearing, Rohrabacher maintained that Congress could go to outside groups for science help. “I operate under the assumption that bureaucracy is the most effective method ever developed that can turn pure energy into solid waste,” he said, further burnishing his science credentials. Still, eventually Holt picked up allies, including a partner across the aisle, Jason Chaffetz. In 2016, the influential Republican began working on a bill to rebrand and revive the agency. But before it got far, he announced he wouldn’t be running for reelection. 

In the meantime, Congress continued to demonstrate its ineptitude on tech. In 2016, after the FBI struggled to gain access to the iPhone data of one of the San Bernardino shooters, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr drafted legislation that effectively required tech companies to build a back door into their encryption. They seemed to be caught flatfooted by vociferous opposition from tech companies and privacy experts, who pointed out that such a back door could also be exploited by criminal hackers and rogue governments to mess with everything from our cell phones to the electrical grid. This shouldn’t have been a great revelation. Just the year before, fifteen leading computer scientists and security experts had coauthored a widely circulated white paper calling this kind of back door “unworkable in practice.” “Reading that bill, there’s very little to signal that they spoke to folks with technical expertise,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist for the Center for Democracy and Technology. In the wake of sharp criticism, including from more tech-savvy legislators, the bill stalled. 

The staffing problem is showing up in Congress’s most important work. Last year, House Democrats decided to release roughly 3,500 Facebook ads bought by Russian agents. They simply didn’t have the committee staff to analyze all that data.

Part of the problem was that members and staff didn’t have enough in-house knowledge even to choose which outside experts to consult—a role the OTA used to play. “Staff can get any number of industry lobbyists, or think tanks, or advocacy groups, or even academics to come in and give them opinions, and I think that’s not sufficient,” said Zach Graves, an associate fellow at the right-of-center think tank R Street and the head of policy at Lincoln Network, a conservative tech nonprofit. “A lot of these experts have other motives. Think tanks have donors and ideologies, and having worked in that space for a while, the quality of work is very inconsistent.” The result is a war of experts, each with their own data and diagnosis of the problem.

Not knowing who to listen to, members and staffers naturally turn to people they personally know and trust, especially former colleagues. Tech companies understand this, which is why in recent years they have vastly expanded their Washington lobbying operations and filled them with former staffers and administration officials. Of course, talking to lobbyists isn’t all bad—getting the perspective of the industry that will be impacted by a law is important. But if the industry’s representative is also your primary source of information, that’s a problem. When the Senate Intelligence Committee needed to look into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, it commissioned outside groups to analyze vast amounts of social media data. Just weeks after the Senate published the findings, an investigation by the Washington Post revealed that New Knowledge, a Texas-based research firm that coauthored one of the committee’s reports, had also been hired to support Doug Jones’s successful 2017 race against Roy Moore for an Alabama Senate seat. While New Knowledge’s exact role in the campaign is disputed, according to the Washington Post report, the effort included spreading fake evidence on social media that Russian bots were supporting Moore on Twitter, and creating a Facebook page aimed at persuading Alabama conservatives to write in a different Republican. That firms conducting research on disinformation for Congress were themselves mired in allegations of disinformation suggests that the legislative branch needs a better system for gathering information. 

By now the evidence that Congress needs stronger in-house capacity is so overwhelming, and the political balance of power has shifted so much, that a revival of the OTA finally seems possible. Dana Rohrabacher, the agency’s most vocal critic, lost his seat last November. Though Rush Holt left Congress in 2015, two of his Democratic allies in the House, Mark Takano and Bill Foster, have taken up the baton. Last year, Takano, supported by Foster, sponsored legislation to bring back a modest version of the OTA that lost by only twenty-three votes, with fifteen Republicans joining Democrats in support. With Democrats having gained forty seats in the midterms, the bill has a much better chance of passing the House this year. If it’s stymied by the Senate, it could be one of the first things Democrats try to pass if they gain control of both houses in 2020. 

In the meantime, the GAO is positioning itself to be part of the solution. The agency’s primary charge is to evaluate government programs and investigate waste and fraud, but in early 2019 it announced that, with a fair amount of bureaucratic reshuffling, it was dramatically growing its tech team. In a political sense, it represents the art of the possible, but whether a team of audit-focused experts can fill Congress’s expertise gap remains to be seen.

In the end, however, neither a tech-savvy audit team nor a revived OTA would fully solve Congress’s tech problem. Newt Gingrich didn’t just surgically remove the OTA; he took an ax to the entire congressional nervous system. He cut the number of House committee staff—who do much of the legwork of policymaking—by more than a third. He reduced the ranks of the legislative support agencies—the GAO, Congressional Research Service, and Congressional Budget Office—by a quarter. The problem only got worse with time. By 2015, according to the most recent count of congressional staff by the Brookings Institution, House committee staff were still about 45 percent smaller than they were in 1993, pre-Revolution; GAO was down by 40 percent, and the CRS by about a third. 

With fewer staffers, the ones who remain take on unrealistically broad policy portfolios. One might be tasked with tracking transportation, defense, and foreign affairs while another has to be ready to make vote recommendations on all things criminal justice, health care, and technology. In addition to being spread thin, staff are overwhelmingly young and underpaid. If you spend a day or two hanging out in congressional office buildings, it won’t surprise you that roughly 40 percent of staffers are under the age of twenty-four. According to an analysis in Vox by two political scientists, junior staffers, like legislative correspondents, make on average a bit less than $29,500. That not only narrows down who can afford to take these jobs in the first place but also means that people don’t tend to stay in them for long. Once they pick up some experience, a higher-paying private-sector or lobbying job awaits.

Staffers with technical backgrounds would have the greatest impact aiding a committee, where much of the actual business of Congress takes place. Those staffers tend to be more specialized and earn more—professional
House committee staff members made a bit less than $96,000 on average in 2015—but that pales in comparison to what someone with technical expertise could be offered by tech companies. It even lags behind the direct competition: the executive branch. To attract top technical talent, at least one executive agency is listing jobs near the top of the government pay scale, which starts well above what these committee staffers make. That may be part of the reason there are so few staffers with technical backgrounds in Congress. Travis Moore, who runs a technology fellowship for Congress, looked into how many of the thousands of full-time congressional staffers have technical training from either academia or industry. He found nine.

To really fix its tech problem, Congress needs to fix its staffing problem. The OTA is only a tool. Staff need to have the bandwidth and background to make use of it. “You could have all the reports in the world, but if the customers for those reports aren’t prioritizing utilizing that information, that’s not going to be as useful as it could be,” said Zach Graves, of the Lincoln Network. Staffers are party to situations that no OTA researcher would be. They’re in committee offices when tech lobbyists walk in and try to put the brakes on legislation by gesturing at vague or fictitious unsolvable technicalities. It’s committee staff, not civil servants from the would-be OTA, who are in all of the important budget and legislative negotiations, and it’s staff who can best talk their bosses out of making a technically ill-advised decision. 

Even the most vocal champions of a revived OTA, including superfan Rush Holt, agree that it would be only part of the solution. There also needs to be a critical mass of staffers with some background in science and technology. “If you don’t have anybody in the initial discussions that even recognizes that there is scientific expertise to be sought, then they won’t get it,” Holt said. 

Committee staffers are bombarded with meeting requests from interest groups, and having even one staffer on hand who is versed in the relevant topic changes the information asymmetry. J. C. Cannon, a former Micro-
soft program manager who spent a year as a staffer for the House Ways and Means Committee through the TechCongress fellowship program, found himself in this role. “People come in and say how difficult this technology is,” he recalled. “Don’t worry about the details, I’m letting you know it’s just too hard to do.” That could be enough to stall legislation. 

Congress hasn’t seen enhancing its staff as a political winner. “[T]he campaign promise that I’m going to raise staff salaries, it doesn’t really sell well with the electorate,” said Representative Bill Foster.

One issue he worked on was pushing for ID numbers for medical devices, so that when a batch of, say, heart valves are defective, the patients who are using them can be notified. An industry representative paid a visit to the committee office, complaining about how hard it would be to implement the IDs. Cannon started asking about what schema and interfaces they were using. “What you’re proposing sounds like a day of work, and we can talk through that if you like,” he told the representative. According to Cannon, the lobbyist got flustered and quickly left. 

The problem of staff capacity is showing up in some of Congress’s most important work. In the spring of 2018, House Democrats on the Intelligence Committee who had been investigating Russia’s disinformation tactics decided to release roughly 3,500 Facebook ads bought by Russian agents. Why did they decide to release them? One factor was that they simply didn’t have the committee staff to analyze all that data. “With all the other elements of the Russia investigation, we as a small staff don’t have that capacity,” Adam Schiff, then ranking member of the committee, told the Washington Post. They hoped that some independent sleuths would do the work for them.

Pinning down the exact value of staffers with technical backgrounds is difficult, but a good proxy is the demand for people coming to Congress on science and tech fellowships. The American Association for the Advancement of Science—which Rush Holt now leads—places thirty or more fellows, sponsored by different science organizations, in congressional offices for one-year stints. In recent years, the number of requests for fellows has been double the number of fellows available, according to the AAAS. TechCongress, a similar program run by former congressional staffer Travis Moore, places early- and mid-career technology professionals in personal and committee staffs. This year, the average TechCongress fellow received offers from eight congressional offices, and several senators reached out to fellows to make the pitch themselves, according to Moore. That lawmakers with constitutional control over the federal purse find themselves competing for a handful of privately funded tech experts tells you how out of whack the system has become.

Congressional staff are overwhelmingly young and underpaid. If you spend a day or two hanging out in congressional office buildings, it won’t surprise you that roughly 40 percent of staffers are under the age of twenty-four. According to one analysis, junior staffers, like legislative correspondents, make on average a bit less than $29,500.

A big part of the problem is that people with science and tech expertise can command considerably higher salaries in the private sector. “After a while, it gets hard to resist,” said James Gimbi, a cybersecurity specialist who worked in Senator Rand Paul’s office as a TechCongress fellow. “You know, when some group comes along and offers you two or three times your pay.” Moore said most TechCongress fellows are taking pay cuts, some as much as 70 percent. Congress probably doesn’t need to match Google when it comes to salaries—being able to work at the epicenter of national policy has its own, strong appeal—but whatever the happy medium is, Congress is definitely not there yet. 

One of the reasons the pay problem hasn’t already been fixed is that Congress hasn’t seen it as a political winner. “That’s a bind that we’ve been in for quite a while,” said Bill Foster, one of the OTA champions in the House. “[T]he campaign promise that I’m going to raise staff salaries, it doesn’t really sell well with the electorate.” 

The politics of congressional staffing, though, are starting to change. Last fall, the GOP-controlled Congress passed, and Donald Trump signed, an appropriations bill that boosted members’ allowances to run their offices. It also commissioned a study on how much Senate staffers make compared to similarly qualified professionals elsewhere, and requested a study on whether Congress has the tech and science advice it needs. In February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised the issue of penurious staff pay when she announced that none of her staff will make less than $52,000 per year. But to achieve higher base pay, Ocasio-Cortez will have to pay her top staffers much less than other offices, maxing out at $80,000. While that egalitarian move means her junior staffers won’t have to work second jobs, it’s the opposite of a solution to the problem of recruiting and retaining staff with science and tech expertise. To do that, she and other lawmakers will need to allocate more funds for staffing overall. 

Boosting salaries at the top end of the pay scale is still no lawmaker’s idea of a winning political move. The temptation, as it has been for two decades, will be to kick this problem down the road, for some future Congress to deal with, in favor of addressing bigger, sexier topics that play better in the media and with constituents. But many, if not most, of those impending policy debates—like protecting privacy online, combating climate change, safeguarding the next election from hacking—are precisely the ones Congress is likely to mess up if it doesn’t have the expertise it needs. That’s something we’ll all end up paying for.

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Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is an associate editor at the Washington Monthly.