An update on Congress’ IT development

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The modernization of Congress, from an information technology standpoint, has advanced in the month since we last spoke to the chairman and ranking member of the select committee dealing with updating Congress. Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and Georgia Republican Tom Graves returned to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with the latest developments.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: The modernization of Congress, from an information technology standpoint, has advanced in the month since we last spoke to the chairman and ranking member of the select committee dealing with updating Congress. A lot has happened and there’s some real money behind some real measures now. Returning with the latest developments, Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and Georgia Republican Tom Graves. Gentlemen, good to have you back.

Derek Kilmer: Great to be with you.

Tom Graves: Thanks, Tom.

Tom Temin: All right, let’s go over this. These are items that are, well, I shouldn’t say they’ve passed the house, but they look like they will. The fiscal ’21 legislative branch funding, which the house will take up this week. Let’s start with one of the provisions that you recommended that is in that and that is document standardization. And I think that relates to bills, correct? Tell us what’s going on there, Representative Kilmer.

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, I’ll start and invite Tom to weigh in here because he’s really been focused on this. If you go back to just core principles, this committee was set up to make Congress function better on behalf of the American people. And we’ve tried to not just make recommendations that wouldn’t go anywhere. We’ve tried to make recommendations that can be enacted and to actually make things function better. And one of those recommendations was about trying to ensure that the general public and members of Congress could follow what’s going on in the Congress more clearly. And, Tom, do you want to just speak a little bit about the specifics of this recommendation, since you’ve worked really hard on it?

Tom Graves: Yeah. Thanks, Derek. So, Tom, really what this addresses is the ability for not only members of Congress and staff to be able to see, say, transitional changes in bill text and such, but to allow our constituents to see it also. So for example, if you were to amend text and current law, this recommendation suggests that it should show the context in which that happens–that you’re not just adding words on a piece of paper, but where do those words go? And what are the texts on either side of that within law, or if you’re striking text, that when the text is stricken, what is it being removed from so you see the hole that’s being left, not just a piece of paper that says, “Strike Section A and B.” And so that’s part of the standardization, but as well,it’s also about bringing all the technology together so that when there’s bill drafting going on or offices or trying to work on some text or you’re in committee drafting an amendment, that it’s all using the same formatting, it’s all coming together much easier for all the systems to use, and ultimately for processing the legislation at the end. But as the chairman mentioned, it’s really about the core principles of this committee. And that is, how we make things operate smoother, better and more transparent so that the American people ultimately benefit?

Tom Temin: Well, the question on that, because it’s a great idea because people that read bills quickly learn that it’s not all this lofty language about the intentions of Congress, but really amendments to earlier laws, and substituting as you say, this paragraph for that paragraph and it almost becomes meaningless as you read it just by itself, but it takes a lot of work to find those references and insert them in some manner as a comment or whatever. So what will be the mechanism for actually writing bills in that manner that have those references and contexts in them?

Tom Graves: Probably the easiest way to describe this would be if you’ve ever worked on a Word document or a Google document, and an editing mode, and you see the changes occur from somebody else, that something was stricken, and something was added. That’s really what this is driving to, so that people can see the context in which a change is being made. So it’s already happening in our personal lives just with our personal applications and in our business world. Question is, and this is what the committee has been all about: Why aren’t we doing this stuff in government? And so we need to bring ourselves into the 21st century and the chairman’s did a great job of leading us in that direction.

Tom Temin: All right. And another item that looks like it’s going to be funded is bulk purchasing and baseline technology suite for offices. Representative Kilmer, what does that mean?

Derek Kilmer: Yeah, one of our recommendations was to have the Chief Administrative Officer of the House leverage some economies of scale by doing bulk purchasing. Right now, the House is largely 435 independent contractors buying their own desktops and laptops and tablets and printers and mobile phones and desk phones. And all of that happens sort of independently. You know, I think all of your listeners are aware of the fact that when you buy in bulk, you save money. And this is really just about both trying to be more efficient with taxpayers money, and also to free up some capacity for members of Congress. And then one of the consistent themes that we have heard in testimony throughout the existence of this committee is just the challenge of retaining capable staff and some of that’s because other costs start to crowd out the ability to compensate your staff and if we can save money on just some of these nuts and bolts things, it hopefully provides a little bit more capacity, not just to save money for taxpayers, but hopefully to ensure that we can hang on to talented people.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and Georgia Republican Tom Graves, Chair and Vice Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. And with respect to talented people, there is $13 million in the bill for support of the Chief Administrative Office and transition staffers to help new members. How do you envision that working?

Derek Kilmer: There are two different things here. One is when a new member is elected for the first time, right now, they can’t bring on any staff paid until they’re sworn in. And the challenge with that is, there’s a lot of work that has to happen before you get sworn in. Generally speaking, members hire most of their staff, they certainly hire a chief of staff who then works with them throughout the time from November to early January. And they’re allowed to designate a staff person, but that person doesn’t get paid, which is certainly problematic. Sometimes they’ll get paid out of a campaign. So one of these recommendations which we had made that the Appropriations Committee embraced was when a new member is elected, allowing them to designate a staff person who would be compensated for that period between the election and being sworn in. So all of that work that has to happen; one, gets done, so you can better serve the needs of your constituents. But two, that that can happen for everybody, even if they don’t have capacity out of a campaign or something like that. The other recommendation was around setting up an HR hub. Again, I come back to–you have 435 largely independent entities right now. And when new members come in, they’ll often ask for, you know, any sort of information around human resources. What’s the processes for hiring or promoting? Or, are there specific guidelines? And more often than not, they’re kind of flying blind. And this would set up kind of a one-stop shop, a human resources hub, dedicated to members and to committees to really provide that guidance. We’re largely talking about Trying to coordinate a bunch of existing offices and a bunch of existing functions, but under a one-stop shop. So again, this gets at trying to do a better job of recruiting and retaining and having a more diverse workforce.

Tom Temin: So earlier, I said that this was getting to be a done deal with respect to the IT of the Congress, but really, it’s much more. The modernizing effort is really extending to the way it operates in terms of people and staff, sounds like. Representative Graves?

Tom Graves: We certainly had a directive of the rules that were passed in the House. But you know, under the Chairman’s guidance, the broader mission was, how can we make the House operate better for the American people and so in some cases that relates to technology and modernizing technology or the bulk purchasing and things like that, but then a large part of it has to do with the functionality and office operations and relationship developing and professional development, and skills development and access to other items or technology and such. So it is a broad brush, I guess, we’ve used, but it’s under the Chair’s direction that we’ve done that. And I guess I’ll add this because I think Derek understands and appreciates the impact he’s made that passing–not only, earlier, are we the first special select committee to actually pass recommendations out of a special select committee, but we’ve done it unanimously. But now those recommendations have been passed through an appropriations committee to be actually funded. And this is a key step because this is in the legislative branch appropriations bill, which in the House of Representatives side of it, which will not be impacted by any Senate action because it doesn’t impact the Senate. And so this is well along the way of implementation, and hopefully being signed into law. So it’s a great compliment to how the chair has led the committee.

Tom Temin: And the final question on details of this, you have devoted funds and effort to website accessibility, and again, websites–did you mean the members’ individual websites in which there are 435, or other sites that might be operated by the Congress?

Derek Kilmer: Well, really, everything related to the institution of Congress. And again, you know, one of the commitments that every member of our committee made, Democrat and Republican, was that Congress needs to work for everybody. And there are roughly 40 million Americans in this country who have a disability, and they should have access to information about their government like everybody else. And so our recommendation was that all House websites, whether that be committees or individual members, or anything else under the Congress, should be accessible, and that the House should provide some resources and some assistance to make sure that all systems are compatible and accessible for the American people. And again, Tom spoke to this. We’ve really had an extraordinary collaboration as a committee. So this isn’t a Democratic issue or a Republican issue. This is about just every member saying, “Hey, Congress needs to work for everybody,” and making sure that information’s available to everybody is a key part of that.

Tom Temin: Does this mean we’ll have to wait another year for a centralized portal for flag sales?

Derek Kilmer: Only time will tell. Only time will tell.

Tom Temin: Because I’ve got a few I want to order.

Tom Graves: We’ll have to put that on the list.

Tom Temin: I’ve got a few friends that have become naturalized. And that’s my gift to them every time, is a flag that flew over the Capitol. And so I wish there were a faster way of getting that all done.

Tom Graves: That’s a great gift, though. That is a really great gift you’re providing folks.

Tom Temin: And you know what? I’ve seen people hang them in their living rooms, because they’re so glad to become Americans. And I guess that’s something we should never lose sight of.

Tom Graves: Wow, that’s great.

Tom Temin: Washington Democrat Derek Kilmer and Georgia Republican Tom Graves, our Chair and Vice Chair of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Thank you both, once again.

Derek Kilmer: Thank you.

Tom Graves: Thank you, Tom.