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The Sausage Factory

Technology in Congress, Part 1: Where We’ve Been

It’s hard to believe, but the digital age that has revolutionized our world is still a relatively new phenomenon.  The Internet, social media, and instant lines of communication have made individuals more informed and connected than at any other time in history. As the rest of the country has embraced these advances in technology, the U.S. Congress has attempted to keep up. Members are often skeptical about changing the way things are done on Capitol Hill, especially when it comes to the core functions of their jobs, such as voting and holding hearings. For instance, Thomas Edison proposed using electronic voting in the House in the 1870s, but the chamber did not approve it until the beginning of the 93rd Congress (1973-1975) – over 100 years later!

The influx of computers into homes and workplaces in the 1990s was less like the turn of the century and more like the Old West – uncharted territory with unlimited potential and little certainty about its future.  On Capitol Hill, this new technology led to changes that ultimately made lawmakers and the legislative process more accountable and improved transparency. The Internet revolution of the 1990s coincided with the Republican Revolution of 1994 and the incoming House leadership introduced a new era of readily available information from the Chamber for the American people.

In 1995, newly elected Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made the first push for the Internet to be used by all House offices and mandated that bill summaries and committee reports would be readily available online. This sparked the beginning of an information wave that was soon embraced by all lawmakers in just a few short years – in the spring of 1996, 117 Members and 58 Senators had established official websites; by the end of 1999, nearly every House member and all 100 Senators had websites. Given that Congress is inherently slow, the shift in technology has created an unprecedented availability of information for the American public, and has rapidly increased communications amongst Hill staff, Members, and their constituents.

Not only has technology changed the way constituents learn about Congress, it has also changed the way the institution itself gathers information. It was less than 20 years ago that staff had to run over to the Library of Congress’ Members reading room in the Madison Building to search the indexes of the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature to find research, and then go look up articles on a microfiche machine.  The staff researcher would then load the microfiche onto a machine that magnified the images and scroll through the film until they found a picture of the article they were looking for.  They could then copy the article and bring it back to their office.  All of this was done before actually reading the article to find out if it actually had the information needed.  Just going to the library to do the basic research needed to answer a constituent letter or prepare an amendment could take half a day’s work.  The same research can be done today in about 15 minutes on a search engine.

The modern day Congress depends on readily available information and the ability to communicate with many individuals at the same time. Walk through the office buildings of the House or Senate and you will surely see a staffer with their head down scrolling through e-mails on their standard-issue BlackBerry device. Coordination is key to their success, no matter if it’s a Member or an entry-level staffer, and the BlackBerry has become the lifeline of business on the Hill today. BlackBerries were first introduced on Capitol Hill in 2000, and at the time were only issued to incoming freshman Members of Congress. The House soon conducted a trial run with 1,000 users. Yet the panic and confusion of the September 11th, 2001, attacks led the House Committee on Administration and the Congressional Accountability Office to purchase a BlackBerry for each Member of Congress. This provided secure lines of communication and the ability to reach each lawmaker in case of another attack. The BlackBerry was so popular that they were soon issued to chiefs of staff and have since become available to most senior congressional staff.

Today, the ability to write and respond to e-mails on the run is critical for Members, who must handle full schedules while staying in constant contact with their staff. The growing popularity of e-mail as a form of communication has allowed Capitol Hill offices to reply instantly to residents back in their district, connecting constituents and their lawmakers like no other time in history. In 2011, the Congressional Institute commissioned a study examining congressional communications, and it showed that the most prevalent method of correspondence for constituents to contact their Member of Congress is now e-mail.  And the famous voting bells that are used to coordinate votes in both chambers still exist – but lawmakers and staff mostly rely on e-mail notification on when votes will occur.

A by-product of the expansion of technology in congressional offices has been the introduction of social media as an outreach tool for Members and staff. Only a few years ago, Facebook and Twitter were largely irrelevant as a means for communicating with a wide audience. College students used them as websites to connect with their friends and share their day-to-day lives, but there was little incentive for adults, and especially elected officials, to use them in a professional manner.

However, the 2008 elections brought on a youth movement that utilized the social aspects of Facebook in order to promote Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for president. As a result, college students became the ultimate campaign volunteers, simply creating pages to support him and then asking their friends to support then-candidate Obama as well. The friends, in turn, shared these support pages with their own friends, thus starting a domino effect. For the campaign, the access to millions of people and their e-mail addresses was the tool for reaching a diverse voter landscape without putting staff in the field. It was the most efficient way to develop name recognition – free labor and instant communication with millions of potential voters around the country.  With the age demographics on Facebook now ranging from high school students to senior citizens, the American public is much more in tune with social media than just a few years ago.   In fact, the fastest growing age cohort on Facebook is those aged 55 or older – which coincidentally happens to be the age group that that has the highest voter-turnout rate (a fact not lost on Members of Congress).

Following along with this trend, elected officials have also established Twitter accounts to share their thoughts, articles, pictures and videos with their followers in real time. Another interesting statistic that was revealed in our 2011 study was that the frequency of a lawmaker’s contact with a constituent correlates with a higher satisfaction rating. This study defined “contact with a constituent” as a printed newsletter, e-newsletter, or an invite to either an in district town hall or tele-town hall. Websites like Twitter are additional tools that makes this relationship feel friendly and personal, increasing the likelihood of favorability from constituents.

Congress has embraced the social media trend in a manner similar to the rise in their websites that occurred during the late 1990s. A Congressional Research Service report from 2013 revealed that congressional Twitter accounts had doubled from 38 percent in September 2009  (39 Senators and 166 Representatives) to 78.7 percent by January 2012 (426 of 541 Members). However, Facebook still remains slightly more prominent on Capitol Hill, as 472 of 541 lawmakers have accounts.  But if the increased use of new online communication tools is any clue to the future, Americans may have dozens of ways to interact with their elected officials in just a few short years.

Part 2 of this post will explore the future of technology in Congress, and some recent ideas that might further change the way in which the institution operates.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Dan Risko is a staff assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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