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Can Congress be a little more like a tech company? Maybe

‘There’s a bias against change,’ one House member says

From left, Chair Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Vice Chair William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C., and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., attend a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hearing on June 8. Thursday's hearing focused on Congress’ lagging tech.
From left, Chair Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., Vice Chair William R. Timmons IV, R-S.C., and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., attend a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress hearing on June 8. Thursday's hearing focused on Congress’ lagging tech. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congress isn’t Google — but it should start acting more like a tech giant. 

That was the message members of the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress got from a trio of witnesses Thursday who discussed ways the nearly 250-year-old institution could get with the tech-centric times. 

“Like we did with C-SPAN in the ’80s, websites in the ’90s and social media in the early 21st century, we need to adopt modern digital tools to improve functions of Congress,” Stephen Dwyer told the panel.

The adviser to House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer described how Democrats develop and maintain popular apps like Dome Watch and Dome Directory, as well as an internal tool called DemCom available to both Senate and House offices. 

The apps, especially Dome Watch, get used by thousands of Hill dwellers and the public alike seeking updates on the hot action happening on the House floor and when votes are being held. 

“Sometimes I am surprised by the success of Dome Watch. It isn’t groundbreaking technology,” Dwyer said in prepared remarks. “What makes it stand out is how rare that is inside Congress.”

One of the committee’s core missions has been to make the House more open to new ways of communicating and less siloed to reduce duplicated work. During the hearing, lawmakers asked the panelists not only what apps could do for Congress, but what Congress could do to foster a spirit of tech innovation.

“It’s clear there’s a bias against change in this institution,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, a Minnesota Democrat. “Who needs to champion at least deploying technological improvements?”

The answer isn’t straightforward in a place that has 535 separate member offices that function independently. That’s also true for the nonpartisan offices tasked with supporting the institution.

“I think there’s a lot of ideas out there,” Dwyer said. “I think we need to do a better job of collecting them.”

Lawmakers have drawn ridicule in recent years as they’ve struggled to exercise oversight over powerful tech companies that are shaping the lives of most Americans — all without seeming to understand how to download an app themselves.

A few little fixes or hackathons may not seem like enough to pull Congress out of that hole, but advocates say they have to start somewhere.

The other panelists Thursday were Reynold Schweickhardt, a senior adviser at the Lincoln Network and onetime congressional technology adviser, and former Republican staffer Melissa Dargan.  

“The House should find a way to be able to bridge these silos,” said Dargan, who launched the TourTrackr app many lawmakers now use to coordinate tours for their constituents. “So that if one issue gets resolved in one office, there can be an easy way to implement that in others.”

Dargan broke down for lawmakers how a tech company would develop a new product, and explained how it could work in the House. She also explained barriers her company faced trying to approach an agency like the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer — she needed a sponsoring member to even get in the door.

Dwyer pointed to one success — a new tool developed by the Senate, which was adopted in the House and now helps lawmakers in both chambers manage letters and sign them electronically.

“Did you say the Senate developed something before the House?” joked Illinois GOP Rep. Rodney Davis

As the sand continues to run through the hourglass for the committee, which was authorized last Congress and is set to end in January, Vice Chairman William R. Timmons IV pointed to one item he still wants to see — a common real-time calendar to reduce scheduling conflicts. 

“We’re having a tough time getting traction,” he said to the panel, saying it’s being worked on. “I think this is something that could make a big impact on this institution.” 

The South Carolina Republican, who had an iPad by his side, had a chance to champion his cause Thursday when he briefly led the hearing after Chairman Derek Kilmer stepped out of the room. 

“I’d mention that if we had a common committee calendar the chairman would still be here,” he said.

Then he recognized Phillips, who asked how the legislative branch could reposition itself “and actually make it cool to serve the country with tech skills in Congress.”

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