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Congress Is for Hackers

Thune tries out augmented reality glasses after speaking at a "hack-a-thon" hosted at Google's office in Washington, D.C. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In fewer than two days last week, more than 100 hackers — coders, business analysts, former congressional staffers and grass-roots advocacy specialists — developed 11 projects aimed at helping Congress function more effectively and transparently.  

It's the kind of efficiency the legislators who spoke to those assembled at Google's Washington, D.C., office can only dream of.  

The winning project was something called "Coalition Builder," which stemmed from Sen. Cory Booker's challenge to develop a program to make it easier to find potential legislative partners.  

"I am interested in working across the aisle whenever possible to get things done," the New Jersey Democrat wrote in his challenge to the hackers. "But I don't have a good way to see where my colleagues stand on specific issues, to identify possibilities for collaboration."  

The innovators had the beginnings of a solution to the senator's problem in fewer than two days. The team developed a free research tool and demonstrated a working prototype on May 1. In "Coalition Builder," an individual can search for a general topic and the search turns up members of Congress who have sponsored or co-sponsored legislation relating to the topic. The search can then be filtered by chamber, party and committee to narrow down potential partners.  

Next week, the team behind "Coalition Builder," as well as the winners from two previous events will return to Washington to pitch their ideas to lawmakers and staffers.  

Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, who gave a kickoff speech on April 30, told the participants about the technological challenges rampant around the Capitol. The South Dakota Republican, who is also chairman of the GOP Conference, said not much has evolved in that department, even with the shift in party control that took place in January.  

"Elections can and do usher in change, and last year's election has ushered in new leadership in the United States Senate. But government is government," Thune said. "For all the change that the election brought to the United States Senate, the system that we use to communicate with our constituents, the processes that we use to legislate, the protocols we use to procure information technology, remain very largely unchanged from where they were six months ago, and in many cases six or more years ago."  

For staffers in attendance, Thune's comments were no surprise.  

"Did you know, for example, that during the committee amendment process, sometimes amendments are proposed by making handwritten additions to printed copy or by simply crossing out text with a pen, pretty old school," Thune said. "Though the use of email and electronic documents has certainly increased, a paper copy of every bill, sometimes thousands of pages long, is still placed on each senators' desk in the Senate chamber when a bill is debated."  

Later in the day, Sen. Richard Blumenthal echoed some of the same themes as Thune, highlighting the use of computers by Connecticut's Legislature.  

"I would have considered it inconceivable to see a legislative colleague go to the floor of the state Legislature in Connecticut and use a computer. But, it is happening all the time. It still is, believe it or not, inconceivable to go to the floor of the United States Senate and see a computer or electronic device being used," Blumenthal said. "That will change."  

While a few floor staffers have access to laptop computers within the chamber, general prohibitions remain. In fact, it still requires unanimous consent to use technology as rudimentary as calculators during budget debates.  

One of the organizers said the lawmakers’ willingness to speak out about lax congressional technology represented "a sea change."  

"The fact that folks are coming and addressing a crowd like this is incredibly promising," said Seamus Kraft, executive director of OpenGov Foundation and a former staffer for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "There's definitely a lot of work that needs to be done in the House and Senate, but we’re light years ahead of where we were even in 2008."  

"We have to get member attention, support and engagement for us to turn the hack-a-thon project into the way that we do business," Kraft said.  

But Kraft said the path to fixing congressional technology issues is also laden with roadblocks such as the existing rules and money.  

"It's rules and resources. It's not viability," Kraft said.  

The lack of resources also remains a problem for a Congress looking to become more tech savvy, as budgets are cut or remain stagnant, and staffing levels decrease. But for some lawmakers, this event showed there are people outside of government willing and able to pitch in.  

"I think what this Hack4Congress shows is just a lot of people of goodwill that are willing to volunteer their time and effort to help improve the transparency and efficacy of the legislative branch," Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said.  

At the event, Steven Schlotterbeck, who runs a tech startup in San Francisco, was going through his program with a Senate staffer at the D.C. event, and became frustrated with the archaic Senate website.  

"Every time she went back [to the site]  I was like, 'Oh man, the Senate of the United States of America has a site that looks like it was made in 1995,'" Schlotterbeck said on May 1.  

In just one hour, Schlotterbeck delivered a revamped prototype of the Senate home page, modern and accessible. As for the actual page? It hasn't changed.  

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