Booker, McCaskill Beg Higher-Ups for Updated Senate Tech

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

A letter from the two senators says the Senate has failed to adopt even basic private sector best practices when it comes to technology and is even pacing behind other federal agencies.

Last month, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution to push greater adoption of the Internet of Things, the increasingly connected world of smart devices and sensors.

Now, one of the co-sponsors of that resolution, Sen. Cory Booker, N.J., is turning his attention on technology a little closer to home -- and focusing on matters decidedly more low-tech.

In a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, Booker and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the Senate has failed to adopt even basic private sector best practices when it comes to technology and is even pacing behind other federal agencies.

“Our aim is to remove unnecessary barriers to technological creativity while best serving constituents and saving taxpayer resources,” stated the April 1 letter addressed to Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the committee’s ranking member. The committee sets rules and protocols for members of the Senate.

The letter laid out a handful of proposals for closing the Senate’s tech gap. Among them:

Update Snail-Mail Rules

The senators requested an update to the rules governing the use of email newsletters. It turns out, current guidelines for sending email newsletters were all written for the era of snail mail, Booker and McCaskill said in the letter.

The letter also requested the use of third-party analytics products to help track members’ presence on social media. Current rules “prohibit Senate offices from collecting information that will allow them to evaluate the effectiveness of their communications programs,” the letter stated.

Release Bulk Data

The letter called on the Senate to update rules to provide a running snapshot of Senate legislative action -- similar to the House’s own, including providing committee testimony and transcripts and even the full Congressional Record in the XML format.

“The burst of civic-minded innovation that would accompany bulk data publishing would make information more accessible to observers, introducing new accountability, public accessibility and transparency to the work of the Senate,” the letter stated.

Move to the Cloud

Booker and McCaskill also want to see the Senate leap into cloud computing. Constituent data is still hosted on individual server machines.

“However, outside the Senate, virtual cloud-based server environments are industry standard -- they are less expensive, more secure and more reliable,” the letter stated, citing the laundry list of federal agencies that have moved to cloud environments, including the Defense, State and Treasury departments.

“These agencies have accomplished secure private data storage through use of encryption technology and regular security audits -- the Senate could do the same,” the letter stated.

Let Us Use WordPress

Even as the Internet has evolved, many of the most popular content-management systems remain off-limits to senators. 

“As the Internet has developed, flexible open-source content management systems have flourished; however, many of the most popular and secure tools available have not been approved for use,” the letter stated. “Tools such as WordPress, the most popular and flexible Web-based systems to control the back-ends of websites, are powerful, secure and easy to use -- but are unfortunately blocked from use in the Senate.

The letter recommended the committee review and approve “the most widely used, stable and secure” content-management systems “with deliberate haste.”