The US Congress should seize the moment to modernize during Covid-19


The coronavirus pandemic highlights the challenges of outdated congressional practices that needed to be addressed long ago. Individual members' offices and leadership of the House and Senate should reevaluate how technology can help US lawmakers better serve their constituents and their country.

US Capitol Building at dusk

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the US congressional office where I work faced a deluge of constituent correspondence, jumping from roughly 2,000 incoming messages a week to 4,000. Rather than offering opinions on policy, the phone calls and mail that flooded in consisted overwhelmingly of urgent casework: people needing help with crucial but complex government programs, parents worried their children would be stranded abroad, small-business owners struggling to receive loans, constituents encountering obstacles to receiving their stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.

It was the same story in every office: Democratic or Republican, every district across the country has been affected by the pandemic. Constituents are relying on the government more than ever. And like the state and local unemployment offices around the country that buckled under the weight of record claims for benefits from the newly jobless amid the pandemic, Capitol Hill offices have struggled to adapt under the weight of decades-old (or older) rules, procedures, customs and technology.

Congress has publicly discussed and/or implemented internal and external technology to adapt to pandemic conditions, from conducting virtual hearings of their committees to allowing for voting by proxy. But the crisis also has exacerbated countless behind-the-scenes issues that strain the capacity of congressional offices and compound their ineffectiveness, especially in constituent relations. A lack of creativity and a resistance to change, especially in the form of technology, worsens the effects. 

Struggling with constituent relations

Many of the stereotypes of the slowness and incompetence of government play out in the federal legislative branch. Everyone from new interns on the Hill to visitors from the private sector is shocked to discover how inexplicably difficult it can be to simply reserve a room for events. The prevalence of faxing and printing out forms, which have long been replaced by email in most other workplaces, is equally appalling. 

The digital illiteracy in Congress became even more painfully obvious when elected members and staff were forced to vacate their Hill offices amid the pandemic shutdowns and begin operating from home. If there was ever a time for offices to switch out traditional email for something like Microsoft Teams or desktop file systems for cloud-based collaboration, it is now. While security is rightfully a pressing issue for considering new technology within the federal government, offices have not even implemented the technologies that are already vetted and approved by Congress.

But one of the first crises was even more rudimentary—a scramble for House and Senate offices to obtain laptops and phones for remote work. Entire offices were unable to function for weeks while equipment was on backorder or as staff assistants raced each other to Best Buy to purchase devices after supplies ran out.

The real trouble then came when offices started losing their interns. On Capitol Hill, interns are the first line of response for constituents. Interns answer the phones, check the mail, and sort through those 2,000 messages a week. But when the pandemic hit, most offices had to abandon their internship programs—either letting the interns go or not accepting new ones or both—because managers first were told remote internships were not allowed, then struggled to secure government-owned devices for them. Even now that staff finally have internship guidance, many are still avoiding creating modified programs because they think the experience wouldn’t be as valuable to the interns, or managers simply don’t know where to start.

So technological hurdles turned into a mountain of extra work—all that overwhelming and urgent constituent correspondence, for example—that suddenly landed on the already overloaded plates of full-time junior staff, who typically handle the majority of administrative tasks for a Senator or Representative’s office. Those junior staff, in turn, were disadvantaged by arcane, outdated procedures and a lack of modern technology. As a result, at a time when constituents most needed help, they often got a response months later – or none at all.

Another standard task disrupted by losing interns was answering phones. Imagine how devastating it was for constituents in crisis to reach out to their representatives and feel like no one was home. At the beginning of the pandemic, offices needed a little time to adjust and plan. But, many offices have continued sending all calls to voicemail even now. Once again, there is both a lack of knowledge about resources available to offices, but also a hesitancy to think differently or rearrange workflows from the way work has always been done, when more creative solutions exist. Offices could develop a rotating call schedule, create a phone tree system, or even download free software available through the House that makes the regular office phone system accessible on every employee’s individual device.

Systemic issues in Congress as an institution

In addition to problems in individual lawmakers’ offices, there are larger, more systemic technology issues across Congress as a whole. For example, the Modernization Staff Association, a bipartisan group that focuses on internal reform issues that primarily affect junior Capitol Hill staff and of which I am founder and president, has been advocating since January for the electronic submission of legislative documents. The pandemic finally spurred this change. On April 6, the House Speaker’s office announced that submitting legislative documents electronically would be permitted through April 19, stating that the policy “may be extended if continued disruption of House operations remains necessary due to the pandemic.” But the notice also said, “Normal practice for Floor submissions will resume once the House returns full-time to the Capitol for regular business." While the policy has been extended since then, there is no indication that it will be made permanent. 

Before the rule change, every time another lawmaker in the House wanted to cosponsor a bill, staffers had to print out a physical form, get it signed by the member, and deliver it 20 minutes away to the cloakroom—and there are 435 elected representatives. Essentially, the April 6 notice means that the House will revert right back to those paper forms and physical signatures when the chamber returns to in-person operations. 

There is no reason to return to these outdated and inefficient practices, ever. Instead, the House should create a permanent tool that allows for electronic co-sponsorship of legislation. We should take advantage of this period of remote work to permanently reform outdated systems.

In both individual member offices and Congress as a whole, the desire to stick to the status quo hobbles the technological changes so vital to more efficient and effective functioning of the federal legislative branch. It doesn’t have to be this way. The shortcomings of Congress' outdated practices have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, and it is past time to modernize the practical functioning of Congress.

A slightly different version of this article was first published at Roll Call on 30 July 2020.