Senators Beg Techies To Bring Congress Into 21st Century

Orhan Cam/

At Hack4Congress, developers attempted to write code that could improve campaign finance record keeping and facilitate cross-party dialogue.

Addressing a room full of young volunteers at Google's office in Washington, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., weren't asking for votes -- they were asking for tech help. 

Congressional proceedings are "pretty old school" and low tech, Thune said in remarks. Legislative amendments are often proposed by making handwritten additions to a printed copy, or by crossing out lines of text. Paper copies of every bill, which can each be thousands of pages long, are placed on each senator's desk before debates, he said. 

Thune and Wyden were among a group of Washington veterans who this week asked developers to create software that could make Congress more efficient.

At Hack4Congress, a two-day hackathon organized by the OpenGov Foundation, which promotes civic technology, and Harvard's Ash Center for Democratic Governance, "hackers" divided into teams to tackle five goals: "Improving the Lawmaking Process," "Facilitating Cross-Partisan Dialogue," "Modernizing Congressional Participation," "Closing the Representation and Trust Gaps," and "Reforming Campaign Finance."

By taking advantage of existing technology, Thune said: “What if [Congress] we could analyze opinions on an issue to yield more than just counts of support or opposition, typically what we do in our offices? What if analysis could help us find and reach out to thought leaders in our state to back important policy issues?"

During a panel at Microsoft's office in Washington, Democratic campaign consultant Joe Trippi contrasted the federal government with the private sector. When Kodak -- a symbol of obsolete technology -- went bankrupt in 2012, he said, thousands of people lost their jobs. When Instagram, a hip tech company, was bought by Facebook for about $1 billion, it only had about 13 employees. 

"Where is that happening inside government . . . in terms of streamlining, using the technology, the applications that absolutely change the way the government does things?" he asked. Congress' next technological leap, he said, should be analyzing voter sentiment on blogs, news and social media accounts. 

But government may not be "as broken as we like to think it is," said Dave Zvenyach, director of acquisition for 18F, the General Services Administration's tech shop. A few congressional groups are using technology to modernize operations, he said -- for instance, the House of Representative's Office of the Clerk has been trying to make congressional records open to the public and easily searchable. 

In general, "my only criticism is they're not doing it in the open," he said. "We don't know about it, and we're not seeing their source code. And if we did, other jurisdictions could participate and get involved."

When asked why Congress continues to be relatively low tech, Zvenyach said, "I think they don't know that it's possible" to make better use of technology. If government groups were more open about simple tech tools they're using -- such as GovTrack, a student-created website that tracks congressional bills  -- "there would all of a sudden be institutional support for doing it."

(Image via Orhan Cam/