Congress Inches Toward Paperless Solutions
Desire for Transparency And Efficiency, Coupled With Cost Reduction, Fuel Urge to Drop Paper
Every day, Members get thick volumes of the Congressional Record delivered to their offices. Marked-up paper copies of amendments still circulate in committee.
But some lawmakers, staff and outside entrepreneurs are daring to imagine a Congress where all communication is done electronically, all documents live on iPads and the only scrap paper lying around fell out of a reporter’s notebook.
“We must continue to explore ways to cut long-term spending, eliminate unnecessary printing and adapt to the electronic delivery of information,” Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Administration Subcommittee on Oversight, which has jurisdiction over House information resources, said last summer. “It’s time that the House information delivery processes transition into the 21st century.”
Of course, it’s already the 21st century, and the paper is still flying pretty fully around the Capitol.
Matt Lira, director of new media for Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), is confident the transition to paperless is coming but doesn’t have a schedule. “Once [the technology] is proven and vetted, and people are comfortable with it, then we can get into discussions about a timeline for it,” he said, explaining that the transition will likely be driven by Members themselves.
In the meantime, Congress is taking steps in that direction. Last month, the Clerk of the House unveiled a new website that contains PDF and XML formats of legislation to be considered by the House.
The website, which was commissioned by the House Administration Committee, marks the first time all bills to be considered by the House are available to Members, their staff and the public in searchable formats in one centralized place online.
Also last month, the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office collaborated to produce a Congressional Record app, which allows users to access the Congressional Record — which averages about 156 pages daily — on their iPads.
Other steps have been taken outside the Capitol. One private company, POPVOX, is creating mobile apps that allow Members of Congress to access documents, record their thoughts and gauge constituent opinion.
Last November, POPVOX released the MarkUp app, which allows users to search, read and annotate legislation. Members of Congress, for whom the app was primarily designed, can use it to view in real time the opinions being entered into POPVOX by their constituents. Ideally, Members will be able to reference constituent comments during discussions on the floor, POPVOX CEO and co-founder Marci Harris said.
“Members of the public are coming to expect a little input, responsiveness and real-time feedback in every other part of their lives,” Harris said, explaining that this mentality extends to interactions with their elected officials as well. And, according to Harris, that input is well-received. “[Members of Congress] don’t care what the whole Internet has to say,” she said, “but they do care what their constituents have to say.”
For Harris, technologies such as the MarkUp app that allow for more efficiency and more communication between Members of Congress and their constituents are steps in the right direction.
“It’s less about saving trees and more about making the data available,” she said.
She explained that one of the major obstacles to improving technology on the Hill is the partisan nature of the institution.
“I think what you have to watch for is the inherent way that the chambers act in a partisan way,” she said, explaining that these tools are typically developed by each caucus independently, and each caucus has an incentive to keep the information-sharing technologies to itself.
Harris — who was a tax, trade and health counsel to Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) — said that while working in Congress, she attempted to build the kinds of platforms that POPVOX now hosts.
Ultimately, she had to venture out on her own because “I couldn’t find the appropriate place for something like that to happen inside Congress,” she said.
Others are working from the inside.
Lira explained that the recent technological changes are being made at a structural level — such as through the Clerk of the House’s office — which means they are more likely to stick around when control of the House changes hands in the future.
The Clerk’s new website, for example, is more likely to be a permanent addition because the documents are being hosted by the Clerk rather than by an individual Member’s office. “It means that people will always be able to get access to the raw information [and] legislative text,” he said.
Lira also said Members are opening up to using these new tools on a regular basis. “Younger Members on both sides of the aisle are really open to using iPads,” he said. “Some insist on it.”