Donald Wolfensberger
Director, The Congress Project

Congress could become so overwhelmed by the impact of information age technologies that the people might come to see it as irrelevant and resort to other means to make national policy, such as a national initiative and referendum process.

That was the worst case scenario for the next decade as sketched by a bipartisan group of 28 congressional staff members from both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The staffers actively explored the topic in 1999-2000 as part of the Congressional Staff Fellowship Program of the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service, meeting with experts from a variety of fields.

Three members of the congressional staff group unveiled their findings at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Monday, January 22, in an off-the-record, roundtable discussion entitled "The Information Age Congress and Deliberation: A Staff Perspective." Also participating in the roundtable were fellows and public policy scholars from the Wilson Center, Washington-area political scientists, and other current and former staff members from Congress. The Wilson Center's Congress Project and the Stennis Center jointly sponsored the event.

The best case scenario in the next decade, according to the staff group, is a Congress that is able to put aside partisan bitterness and rancor in favor of civility and comity, paving the way for more genuine deliberation and serious lawmaking. Congress could then use technology for oversight purposes and to inform the people about the activities of their government and pending policy questions. There is a real need for people to look at issues more in depth, and technology can assist Congress in providing people with that information.

The key as to which scenario will prevail depends on whether the Congress is passive or proactive to the perils and promises of the information age. At present, Congress is behind the learning curve in using information age technology as a tool for its benefit. Instead, it is being overwhelmed by an exponential growth in constituent e-mail messages (one office reported an average of 3,000 messages a week) that it still attempts to answer by regular mail, signed by the congressman. The special interests are more numerous and organized than ever in using the new and traditional communications technologies to recruit, organize, and mobilize their members at a moment's notice to pressure Congress. In short, there is less time and space for a deliberative process that is essential to building a consensus on major policy issues.

Yet, Congress remains stuck in the mid-twentieth century, doing much of its work as it always has, but getting less done as new problems mount and as constituents and interest groups breathe down their necks in real time. The staff group offered a few suggestions for how the Congress might begin to cope with the challenges and opportunities of the information age. These include:

* encouraging more informal, bipartisan retreats and other activities that will enable members to rebuild relationships and trust;

* appointing a chief information officer for Congress to assist members and committees in using information technologies to better accomplish their goals;

* creating a temporary, short-term bipartisan committee (similar to the Y2K committees in the last Congress) to study the future implications of information technologies for the Congress and make recommendations for dealing with them;

* devoting greater prestige and resources to office technology administrators to avoid a further brain drain to the private sector; and

* finding more ways to promote professional staff development through enhanced learning and training opportunities, including more interactions with private, non-profit groups in sharing their knowledge and expertise.

Some roundtable participants observed that there were probably similar alarmed reactions in Congress with the advent of the telephone, radio, television, and the Fax machine. However, others noted that the latest developments in modern information technology differ in the degree of their speed, interactive capabilities, and related expectations of instant response.

When this is played out in a lawmaking setting, in which deliberation and consensus building take time, the people are bound to get all the more frustrated and angry with Congress for not being responsive, timely, or competent. And yet, if Congress tried to adapt to the speed demanded by the age, others point out, it would be little more than a plebiscitary body that translates the latest public opinion poll results into instant policies.

The congressional staff group presenting the discussion draft concluded that process matters more than anything else, and that the Congress should not sacrifice critical face-to-face deliberations for the conveniences of teleconferenced hearings, chat-room legislating, or remote voting. They found that their own experience as a staff group, learning together over a two year period, could serve as a model for the Congress because it produces strong relationships, trust, and results.