April 24, 2020 | By Lorelei Kelly

Dodge City, Kansas is the American symbol of frontier lawlessness. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the gang from “Gunsmoke” all represent its storied history. It’s also where my mom’s homesteading ancestors landed in the USA from Switzerland. So it was with some irony that as I drove across the country to be with my mother during COVID-19, Dodge City served as the backdrop for what could be the future of America’s legislative process.

With members of Congress scattered across the country, and uncertainty over if and when they could return to D.C., our small Continuity-of-Congress working group organized a virtual mock hearing, the first of its kind in the U.S. as a test of remote systems that would allow for continuity of government during a crisis.  We were even able to secure bipartisan participation. Former Member Brian Baird (D, WA) and former Member Bob Inglis (R, SC) served as co chairs. 

“There were the usual teleconferencing woes. There were home-schooling background noises, and Johnson’s microphone echoed. But other issues were more specific and became apparent as the exercise proceeded – how were the participants playing staffers supposed to whisper guidance to the members of Congress they served? What was the best way to offer an amendment? Could the parliamentarian offer real-time feedback to the chair? Were people voting both yea and nay during voice votes, knowing they were off-screen and wouldn’t get caught? What if a member yelled “point of order”—a parliamentary move that can force a crucial stop in proceedings—and the chair simply refused to hit “unmute”?

Still, to a reporter watching from home, it felt a lot like the real-world activity it was meant to simulate: a congressional hearing and bill markup.” – Why Is Congress Still Meeting In Person? [Politico]

Since that first test run, it has become clear that social distancing guidelines and critical health precautions should preclude Congress from travelling and meeting en-masse, in person until medical professionals determine that it is safe. Equally urgent is a technically-enabled solution that enables the legislative branch to carry on. Last week, we worked with American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, Bipartisan Policy Center, Congressional Management Foundation, GovLab at New York University, Lincoln Network, and POPVOX to host an even larger event, led by former members of Congress (and +60 former members as participants).  We heard testimony from retired Army General David Petraeus, representatives from Microsoft and Zoom, and a member of the U.K. Parliament, which just shed over 700 years of tradition to hold its first session online. Per normal committee prep, we created a Briefing Book for the mock hearing that provides deep background and context on Congress’ options and democratic continuity. 

Watch the mock hearing. YouTube

Tomorrow, I will be providing testimony in a virtual hearing in the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. While the vital debate continues about remote voting and the Constitution, the deliberative process of committees is moving on. Committee hearings, after all, are how the “business” of Congress that is referred to in the Constitution–is carried out.  Hearings are a vital bridge to the American public. They provide the due diligence for policymaking and they must continue to inform, discuss and account for national priorities, even during a pandemic. 

This upcoming hearing and others that follow will demonstrate resilience; that our elected leaders can pivot and surge using popular platforms until we have the rules in place for a system built for Congress and all its unique needs. Looking to the future, this progress brought about by COVID-19 is evidence that modernizing Congress is possible and that it is gaining support every day.

I’m now home with my family in Northern New Mexico. Out here in San Juan County, I’m having the full rural broadband experience (it’s not great!)  High-speed internet access is something that I’ve known about and advocated for but never actually had to worry about from my fully wired workplaces in Washington, DC. Nonetheless, I’ve figured out a way to make my internet more consistent by commandeering a Nest camera on a work shed near the horse corral.  Indeed, as people across the country have found solutions allowing them to continue working, so should the world’s most powerful national legislature. 

Here are my workmates:

dog sniffing flower horse in stall

And my office:

brick workshed

Photos courtesy Lorelei Kelly. Header image courtesy Rory Kelly Denman.

April 7, 2020 | By Lorelei Kelly

Last month, as Congress was navigating pressing priorities from COVID-19, the U.S. House of Representatives took action for the first time in 50 years in passing a reform bill to help Congress itself work better for all Americans. 

The Moving our Democracy and Congressional Operations Towards Modernization (MODCOM) resolution, H.Res.756, includes 30 of the recommendations made by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It addresses vital needs such as cybersecurity training, staff diversity, and technology upgrades. 

“The House just showed that bipartisan work is possible, and that it can produce important bipartisan reforms that will begin to give Americans the 21st century Congress they deserve.” – Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee

Here at the Beeck Center, our guiding mission is to provide impact at scale. Our research looks at the roles of government, the private sector, and nonprofits in achieving positive societal outcomes. In practice, it means we identify methods and interventions that include and increase beneficial results for more people. At the policy level, this could mean updating a public service, evaluating the balance between public good and private profit, or figuring out a sustainable business model for social mission nonprofits. 

At the institutional level, such as with Congress, it means we are working with methods that are part of a centuries-old, out-of-date institution. In Congress, the rule of law is the process, and scaling social good requires changing the communications systems of democracy itself. Over the past three years at Beeck Center, this has been our priority in research we’ve led to help modernize the U.S. Congress. 

There is no better way to scale social good than to change the law. And there’s no better way to scale a systems change than by reconfiguring how democratic institutions govern themselves. The MODCOM legislation is historic in that it is the first time since the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 that a reform bill has succeeded. Even more groundbreaking, it also takes vital first steps toward building a more informed, effective and responsive governance model for one of our nation’s cornerstone institutions. 

For nearly two decades, I’ve worked with a small group of individuals inside and outside of Congress including members of Congress, the Congressional Management Foundation, the Democracy Fund and my tech partner, Popvox. We are collaborating to build modern information sharing capacity within our national legislature so it can serve the highest ideals of American democracy. The Beeck Center’s Data + Digital portfolio surfaced at exactly the right time to tip the balance of this collaborative effort. The urgent need for action is conveyed in the stark introduction to our recent report:

Congress is knowledge incapacitated, physically disconnected and technologically obsolete. In this condition, it cannot fulfill its First Branch duties as laid out in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

But all of these challenges could be vastly eased if we act now to implement durable changes in Congress’ digital infrastructure. 

Our ability to productively surge into the institutional gray area revealed by COVID-19 is because of our focus on scaling social good. But our ability to move with speed and confidence is due to long-standing investment in trust and relationship building. In just hours, our modernizing Congress team pulled together an online expert briefing for Hill staff on Continuity of Congress. Within the same week, we helped organize a “mock” committee hearing. We were even able to secure retired Democrat and Republican members of Congress to roleplay the committee chairs.  

Meanwhile, Congress itself is taking steps to adapt new digital infrastructure and distance methods for its operations. COVID-19 is a difficult and scary time, but the silver lining can be an improved democracy that serves all Americans. We will keep working to make it so.

Lorelei Kelly is a Fellow at the Beeck Center on the Data + Digital Team. She is an expert on building inclusive and informed democratic systems and leads the Resilient Democracy Coalition (RDC), which assesses how data, technology and new engagement methods can help build a trustworthy modern legislature–specifically focused on the U.S. Congress. Follow her on Twitter at @LoreleiKelly.