Congress should seize the moment to modernize during COVID-19

Pandemic has exposed shortcomings of outdated Capitol Hill practices

A desire to stick to the status quo impairs the effectiveness of Congress and individual member offices, Bhatia writes.  (CQ Roll Call)
A desire to stick to the status quo impairs the effectiveness of Congress and individual member offices, Bhatia writes. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 30, 2020 at 7:00am

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, my congressional office faced a deluge of constituent correspondence, jumping from roughly 2,000 incoming messages a week to 4,000. Rather than policy opinions, we primarily received casework: people needing help with crucial but complex government programs; parents worried their children would be stranded abroad; small-business owners and constituents struggling to receive loans, unemployment or stimulus checks.

It was the same story across parties and districts nationwide. But while constituents were relying on the government more than ever during the pandemic, many offices were dealing with a plethora of problems of their own.

Congress has publicly considered technology issues such as remote voting and virtual hearings since the virus took over the U.S. However, there are countless behind-the-scenes issues that have strained the work of congressional offices, especially in constituent relations, exacerbated by a lack of creativity and a resistance to change. The personal offices of members of Congress and House and Senate leadership should reevaluate how technology can lead to better service for their constituents and country. 

Many of the stereotypes of governmental incompetence and inefficiency play out in the federal legislative branch. It is inexplicably difficult to reserve event spaces, and the prevalence of faxing and paper forms, easily replaced by email in most other workplaces, is equally appalling. The digital illiteracy in Congress became painfully obvious when offices transitioned to working from home. If there was ever a time for offices to switch out traditional email for Slack and desktop file systems for cloud-based collaboration, it’s now. 

The House’s first crisis was a scramble for offices to obtain laptops and phones for remote work. Entire offices were unable to function for weeks while equipment was on back order and local suppliers ran out. Trouble accelerated when offices lost their interns, the first line of response for constituents, helping sort through those thousands of weekly messages. But the pandemic forced most offices to abandon their internship programs. Even now that staffers have received permissible remote internship guidance, many are still avoiding creating modified programs because they simply don’t know where to start.

Without interns, all of that overwhelming and urgent constituent correspondence landed on the already overloaded junior Hill staffers. So when constituents most needed help, they often got a months-delayed response — or none at all.

Losing interns also meant many offices started sending all incoming calls to voicemail. Imagine how devastating it is for constituents in crisis to reach out to their representatives and get an answering machine. Once again, there’s not just a lack of knowledge about available resources, but also a hesitancy to rearrange workflows or think differently when creative solutions exist.

Offices could develop a rotating call schedule among staff and interns as mine did, create a phone tree system under which constituents get an automated message that redirects them accordingly, or even download free software available through the House that installs the regular office phone system to every employee’s personal device.

In addition to problems in personal offices, there are larger, systemic issues that run throughout Congress. Perhaps most frustrating is the general sentiment that all change is inherently negative. For example, the Modernization Staff Association, a bipartisan group that focuses on internal reform issues and of which I am founder and president, has advocated the electronic submission of legislative documents since January. On April 6, the speaker’s office announced that this procedure will be permitted, but also that “normal practice for Floor submissions will resume once the House returns full-time to the Capitol for regular business.”

Before the rule change, staffers needed to print out a physical form, get it signed by the member and deliver it 20 minutes away to the Cloakroom every time a new member wanted to co-sponsor a bill — and there are 435 representatives. 

There is no reason to return to this outdated and inefficient practice, ever. Instead, the House should create a permanent tool that allows for electronic co-sponsorship of legislation and take advantage of this period of remote work to permanently reform outdated systems.  

In both individual member offices and Congress as a whole, the desire to stick to the status quo impairs their effectiveness. It doesn’t have to be this way. The shortcomings of these outdated practices have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic, and it is past time to modernize the practical functioning of Congress.

Ananda Bhatia is the legislative correspondent for Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, and the founder and president of the Modernization Staff Association, a bipartisan group that focuses on internal reform issues that primarily affect junior Capitol Hill staffers.