The Movement to Modernize Congress is Now Imperative

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the institutional level, such as with Congress, it means we are working with methods that are part of a centuries-old, out-of-date institution.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.

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