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These people are trying to make Congress smarter about tech policy

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor
Representative Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, questions Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., not pictured, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As bad as the tech industry has been when it comes privacy and security, Congress has arguably been worse.

The legislative branch has ignored long-festering tech problems like patent trolling or social-media disinformation campaigns, and won’t clean up its own messes—the obsolete Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows warrant-free police access to email stored online for more than 180 days, still awaits reform.

And we can’t even get through a hearing of a tech CEO without seeing some representative or senator exhibit a baffling level of ignorance of the tech industry.

Big Tech’s own conduct has also shown that thorny issues like online privacy won’t get any better without laws that set a greater standard for giving people control of who gets their data and what gets done with it. We need a more informed Congress—and a few groups are working to make that happen before the next election.

Borrowing tech expertise

Few representatives and senators come from the tech industry—the 115th Congress featured only eight former engineers and eight former software executives, versus 26 with farming or ranching experience on their resumes. And change is coming slowly: The newly-sworn-in 116th Congress added just nine people with science, technology, engineering or mathematics backgrounds.

Since 2016, a group called TechCongress has been trying to fix this issue by recruiting techies for one-year fellowships that place them in House and Senate offices, where they can help research and draft bills

“They want to do something more meaningful than create the next laundry-delivery app,” founder and director Travis Moore said of TechCongress’s recruits.

The class of 2016 only had two fellows, but increased funding from the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund helped the just-announced class of 2019 to expand to eight.

Moore said TechCongress’s biggest accomplishment has been getting some fellows to stay in Washington. That can help offset the usual Congressional preference for “generalists and politically savvy people,” as Jock Friedly, CEO of the Congressional data firm LegiStorm, wrote in an email.

For example, 2017 fellow Sunmin Kim, formerly a tech journalist, stayed on with Sen. Brian Schatz (D.-HI.) and worked on the recently-signed OPEN Government Data Act, which requires government data to be released in standard, machine-readable formats.

Another 2017 fellow, former American Civil Liberties Union chief technologist Chris Soghoian, went full-time with Sen. Ron Wyden (D.-Ore.) and has taken a leading role in the senator’s advocacy for stronger government cybersecurity.

Zach Graves, head of policy for the conservative tech-policy group Lincoln Network, called those career pivots “the biggest value” of TechCongress, noting that any new fellow will devote a chunk of that year to learning the workings of the Hill.

Building in-house smarts

It would also help if Congress could once again call upon its own tech brain trust. From 1972 to 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment had a budget and staff to conduct its own research and issue its own reports—but then Congress zeroed out funding for the OTA under pressure from then House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.).

Over the last few years, a growing range of Democrats and Republicans—from the conservative American Enterprise Institute to Federal Communications Commission commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic appointee—have called for undoing Gingrich’s deletion of the OTA.

“It reduces the potential for the kind of big, blundering, stupid bills and maybe increases the likelihood that good things will move quickly,” Lincoln’s Graves said.

“Re-opening the OTA would definitely help,” said Rachel Wolbers, policy director of the tech-advocacy group Engine.

But reviving an organization earlier renowned for its pioneering environmental research could be politically tricky, considering the hostility of the Trump administration to green policies. And a new OTA would cost serious money that would probably have to come from somewhere else in Congress’s budget for itself.

“It’s a zero-sum game in the legislative branch appropriations world,” Graves warned.

What else?

Engine’s Wolbers suggested that tech companies themselves ought to come to Washington more often, and not just when they want a bill passed or stopped.

“Ultimately, I think that tech needs to spend more time helping educate staffers,” she wrote, pointing to existing efforts by cybersecurity and defense firms. “We have had a lot of success partnering with Congressional Tech Staff Association (CTSA) on briefings and educational programming, so encouraging more tech organizations to reach out to this group of staffers would be helpful.”

Another helpful move would be addressing stagnant Hill staff salaries. LegiStorm’s data shows that the median annual salary for member office staff of $50,971 in 2018 barely budged up from the 2010 figure of $49,797.

Fixing a dynamic that encourages competent staff to flee for more lucrative private-sector jobs will take money and won’t be an easy sell. But TechCongress’ Moore endorsed making that effort anyway: “Congress needs to invest in itself.”

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.