Congress

Is Congress expanding its knowledge to meet oversight demands?

U.S. Capitol (Photo by M DOGAN / Shutterstock) 

When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified on Capitol Hill in April, the public got a close look at a problem mostly known to tech policy insiders: most members of Congress are not familiar enough with technology to ask good questions.

The Facebook hearings represented "the first real public show of just how badly Congress is struggling to understand just how tech is changing society," said Travis Moore, the founder of TechCongress , a group that gives Capitol Hill fellowships to promising young techies. "This is going to keep happening."

A July 17 House Judiciary Committee hearing on social media content filtering illustrated these challenges.

Much of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing was spent by Republicans accusing the social media giants of conservative bias, by Democrats rebutting this claim and asking why certain conspiracy pages remained on the site and by executives representing Facebook, YouTube and Twitter explaining to lawmakers how their algorithms and content policies work.

However, at one point, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) observed of the audience packed into the hearing room, "there's not one grey head in the entire gallery." That was not true of those asking the questions.

But the problem runs deeper than the greying members of Congress, argued Kevin Kosar vice president for policy at the think tank R Street Institute.

"The success of a committee is driven in part by the members in Congress who are on it, and if they're committed to doing the grubby, oversight activities… that don't necessarily attract voter attention," he said, adding, "the size and quality of a committee's staff will greatly affect committee behavior."

In 2001 the Judiciary Committee had "about 25 policy-focused staffers for every communications aide," said Casey Burgat, a Governance Project fellow at R Street. "Now the ratio is closer to five-to-one."

Kosar also noted that the staffs of nonpartisan congressional assistance entities, such as the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office, have seen their staff size decrease. And in the technology arena, that knowledge gap is even more glaring.

Congress once had the Office of Technology Assessment, an internal congressional think tank that produced reports on technical matters for lawmakers, but it was shuttered in the 1990s to cut costs.

Earlier this year, lawmakers attempted to revive OTA, which peaked at a budget of $20 million and a size of 140 staffers, but the bid failed on a mostly party-line vote in the House.

"Technology is kind of creating havoc with the jurisdiction of just about every committee because tech is touching just about everything," said Kosar.

Especially in the face of massive new companies worth billions and powerful lobbying groups, knowing the right questions to ask becomes even trickier and more pressing, said Moore, who founded and runs the Tech Congress program, which places graduate students in technology fields in the offices of lawmakers and congressional committees.

"These issues are complex. They are hard to wrap your head around," he said. "Technology is not something you can learn on the go in the way you can other subjects."

In the days following the April Facebook hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the New York Times if Congress did not end up writing and passing new regulations to prevent similar data sharing issues in the future, "we'll look like a bunch of idiots."

But three months later, Moore still isn't sure what came out of the Facebook hearings.

"If those members can't agree what the problems were, what the root causes are, what the regulatory gaps or the self-regulatory gaps in industry that caused Facebook to use or share your data [are]… then you're not going to get to any resolution," he said. "Without an accurate understanding of the issues, you can't even begin to start to define the problem," let alone legislate for it.

Moore noted that while some offices have recently begun to bring in technologists as staffers,

it is still far from the norm in Congress.

"Decent, functional government in the 21st century requires a technologist at the table," he said. "This is going to happen eventually. Congress is going to bring in tech people eventually."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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