With Congress’ approval ratings in the single digits, and in the midst of an ugly political season, our legislature might not appear as a hopeful place to start putting U.S. democracy back on track. And shows like “House of Cards” that depict Congress as sinister and conspiratorial don’t help its dismal reputation. The truth is less dystopian, if not as entertaining: Congress isn’t organized enough to be devious.
If you look past the headlines to the slow but persistent technological progress of Congress, you’ll see that the organization of Congress is changing in ways that will help it be a more informed, inclusive and effective democratic institution. Congress is in the process of adapting to the disruptive and data-driven demands of the 21st century. It is difficult to detect this progress on the outside, because, unlike the president and the executive branch, nobody speaks for Congress as a whole. The institution can’t defend itself, and therefore suffers disproportionately in today’s angry political discourse.
Moving from noise to knowledge
The unhinged rise of social media in public life, plus the Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited anonymous money into politics, has hit our democratic institutions at a vulnerable moment. Moreover, neither major party has made the modern institutional case for the importance of our first branch of government (Congress). If the political parties cared about democracy as much as they do about raising money, they would devote themselves to renewing our governing institutions and championing Congress.
The Democrats would give Congress ways to experiment like the Brazilian Parliament, which features a hacker lab. The Republicans would be the guardians of the institution; they would insist on respectful codes of conduct and fact checking, like true conservatives.
Both parties would seek out best practices in other legislatures that are modernizing representative democracy. The leadership would set aside campaigning to encourage their members to engage, experiment, learn and share on behalf of the institution. While valiant efforts exist on both sides of the aisle, helping the institution evolve in this way is not yet a high priority.
More obvious is our legislature’s self-inflicted damage, primarily to its ability to engage in critical thinking. Congress’ problem managing knowledge is not an accident, it is an outcome. Congress gave itself a lobotomy in 1995, just a few years after the end of the Cold War, and on the cusp of the internet revolution. In the process, the GOP majority eliminated much of Congress’ capacity for critical thinking. The legislature’s science forecasting agency (the Office of Technology Assessment) was defunded.
Seeing public sector infrastructure as competition to the private sector, the new leadership then wiped out the shared issue caucus staff — which performed much of the continuing education on complex policy for members of both chambers and both parties. Keep in mind, these global public interests — things like hunger, disease and nuclear security — don’t have strong domestic constituencies, so they can’t compete with well-funded private interests or narrow advocacy tactics.
If the political parties cared about democracy as much as they do about raising money, they would devote themselves to renewing our governing institutions.
The policy-relevant entities who thrived inside Congress after this lobotomy were ideologically aligned “think tanks” that took over substantive policy tasks and K Street lobbyists who began to have more and better policy intelligence at their fingertips than Congress did. The GOP also cut back the committees, diminishing institutional memory by getting rid of permanent committee staff.
Finally, the Republicans “consolidated” the Congressional Research Service (CRS) — the world’s premier legislative knowledge bank — to severely restrict specialized knowledge. In fact, CRS did not have a dedicated intelligence expert on staff during the 2013 Snowden revelations, having never replaced their expert when he retired.
What is the excess capacity of democracy?
Congress needs a democratic content strategy. Like tech innovators in Silicon Valley, citizens who want to help build a 21st Congress can start by thinking about how technology can tap the excess capacity of our democracy. The first steps for Congress will be organizing the knowledge of geographic constituencies so that it is trusted and relevant, and then integrated into the stodgy, old processes of lawmaking.
What is a new division of labor for civics when information is participatory? What are the rules of engagement for expanded inclusion? For disclosure of conflicts of interest? What new constituencies can you offer your member of Congress and your senators? Are you a technologist? How about checking in with the local staff and introducing them to the hacker community.
Are you a data nerd? Develop a micro-media press list of district-based tweeters and Facebook or blog posters who are reputable, follow it up with a meet-up to authenticate participation and determine how to create usable formats (bonus if you can match expertise to the members’ committee assignments).
Are you an events organizer? Help your member discover new ways to safely and productively engage with constituents on policy issues. Are you a community journalist? Create a dashboard together with your representative’s local staff that organizes relevant information. Tailor it for the members’ institutional responsibilities or for surge capacity in a crisis. Are you a low-tech online reader? Click through your member’s website and contact the front office with a list of dead links.
Congress isn’t organized enough to be devious.
Last year, a member office called me seeking Midwestern veterinarians with goat-herding knowledge for the Ebola hearings. Those veterinarians’ minds are the excess capacity of democracy. We need to create a decentralized decision support system for our legislature using this abundance — one that complements the great work of Congress’ own knowledge resources.
How about a question and answer site that lives through a season of hearings, maintained in the chair’s district by a public university or community college? Moreover, if the committees are falling behind on Capitol Hill, let’s move some of the hearings into the states so local experts and experienced constituents can weigh in. Thoughtful deliberation and learning can happen anywhere, after all.
Across the globe, governance is in crisis. The reputation of democracy is at stake. Not just Americans, but the world needs our democratic institutions to do more than survive the present chaos — we need them to thrive. How the United States moves forward to scale inclusion in the coming years counts more than usual.
If we can meet these changes inside of Congress with a helpful, ready corps of citizens, we have a chance to build a system based on 21st-century power, where reputation, location, information integrity and ethical conduct are stronger than angry voices and endless money.
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