Congressional Technologic


“Buy it, use it, break it, fix it, Trash it, change it, melt – upgrade it.” If only fixing and changing the technological infrastructure of Congress would be as simple as Daft Punk would have us believe. At the beginning of the month Republicans were up in arms over a seemingly nefarious move by Democrats to gavel out a vote on an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill, a move reminiscent of the 2003 Medicare vote and 1989 incident where Speaker Jim Wright held the vote open for more than the required time. It seems, however, (a special House committee is looking into this) that the error made was possibly the fault of an outdated, outmoded electronic voting system employed on the floor of the House.

The Hill reports that two incidents of electronic voting malfunction, including the aforementioned controversial under-vote, in the past month have infuriated lawmakers. Aside from the under-vote on August 2 the voting machines blacked out the very next day. Frank Ryan, the former head of the House Information Systems (since renamed House Information Resources), voices surprise that these machines, which he helped install in 1973 have not been upgraded since. Count me as one who is not surprised. Technological changes and adoption in Congress have always required political will and strong personalities for any thing to happen.

Just take a look at the history of electronic voting, the origins of which do not begin in 1973 but in 1869. A young Thomas Edison came to Washington in 1869 to offer Congress the use of a new invention of his, the automated voting machine, which he felt would help reduce from hours to minutes the amount of time spent on each individual vote. Congress rejected Edison as they felt that automated voting would reduce the ability of the leaders in Congress to corral the necessary votes to form winning coalitions. Numerous attempts were made over the years to institute some form of electronic, or automated, voting system to no avail (most notably in 1914). Electronic voting did not come to Congress until the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, a massive bill that required intense political pressures and passions, mandated that the House create an electronic voting system.

It’s great that these malfunctions (if that’s what occurred) happened to make Congress reevaluate its spider-webbed technological infrastructure. Congress, however, will always make excuses as to why they shouldn’t do anything, as they are with upgrading the voting system, without heavy pressure from both inside and outside. The Open House Project, along with other groups both partisan and nonpartisan, are making technological change in Congress politically possible by showing that the need exists and constituencies care. There are definitely champions of technological innovation and improvement working inside of Congress as well. Changing congressional technologic doesn’t happen overnight; hopefully this time it won’t take 130 years for them to upgrade it.