Is Congress too old to regulate Big Tech?
As Members of Congress serve longer terms, technology continues to outpace legislation
When I began working at the Library of Congress, the Librarian of Congress—the head of the agency—was the 80-year-old James H. Billington. Dr. Billington was a brilliant scholar and fundraiser, a true polyglot who could awe Members of Congress, foreign Heads of State and leading academics alike. Yet despite being an advocate for digital librarianship, Billington was often perplexed by technology, particularly as he got older. I recall a meeting in his office in 2013 where I suggested a social media campaign connected to a new initiative the Library was considering. He kept referring to my idea as a press release. I adored Dr. Billington, and wrote a glowing appreciation of him after he passed away. But Web 2.0 was not his strong suit.
I thought about Dr. Billington this past week in the wake of Frances Haugen’s testimony before Congress, the latest in a series of Congressional hearings on social media and Silicon Valley. After Mark Zuckerberg testified in 2018, the scuttlebutt in Washington was that Members of Congress were too old to understand how Facebook—or the Internet—worked. Three years later, our Senators seemed more knowledgeable about social media, yet by no means were they savants. Just as people questioned whether Dr. Billington could effectively lead the Library of Congress in a digital age, so, too, are we left to ponder: Is the U.S. Congress too old to legislate big tech?
It’s important to state that ageism is a real and harmful phenomenon. A person’s age should never be used as an automatic indicator of their tech savviness or ability to perform a job. My friend Francine is 80 years old and active in cryptocurrencies, NFTs, Clubhouse and venture capital. Still, when one looks at the age of the U.S. Congress, one cannot help but notice an elderly population that grows older each term. The average U.S. Senator is now 64 years old. The average House member is 58 years old. Both numbers have steadily increased with each Congress. By comparison, the U.S. national median age is 38 years.
Age alone does not tell the whole story, though. Not only is the U.S. Congress growing older, but Members of Congress are serving longer. Senator Patrick Leahy has served since 1974. Mitch McConnell has served since 1985. Diane Feinstein has served since 1992. These tenures are not exceptions. The average length of service for Members of Congress has steadily increased throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, particularly in the U.S. Senate.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Members of Congress averaged much shorter terms. According to the Congressional Research Service, Representatives generally averaged between two and three years of prior service, and Senators averaged between three and five years. Members of those early Congresses did not seek re-election as often; they held other jobs, and life in Washington was, according to one scholar, unpleasant, fluid and not as predicated on seniority as it would later become.
That changed after the Civil War and into the 20th century. To serve in Congress or in Washington evolved into a life-long career, a result of the consolidation of political parties, the primary voting system, re-districting, and the professionalization of campaigning. All combined to consolidate power in the hands of the incumbents. The percentage of U.S. Senators serving for longer than 12 years increased throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, those Senators comprise one-third of the chamber.
In short, those in positions of power have become experts at retaining that power. Even as approval ratings for Congress dwindle, and Americans express declining trust in their elected officials, incumbents win elections term-after-term. Those re-elections come at a cost. Campaign expenses have skyrocketed, and lawmakers spend as much as 50 percent of their time campaigning, according to one analysis. Additionally, Congressional offices are now inundated with correspondence, in large part due to the very technologies they’re asked to regulate. House members received approximately 70,000 emails in 2020, not to mention snail mail and telephone calls. In one sample district, one House Rep went from receiving 9,300 constituent messages in 2001 to 123,000 in 2017. Members of Congress and their small staffs (18 employees for House offices; 35-70 for Senate offices) spend a majority of their time raising money and responding to emails.
That leaves little time to become well-versed in new technologies, which are advancing rapidly in the U.S. and around the world. The social Web, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, automated vehicles, drones, facial recognition, blockchain, quantum computing—it’s difficult for a layperson to stay up-to-date, let alone a career politician with no background in technology (nine Members of Congress are engineers; six have experience working in software). Decades ago, the legislative branch had an Office of Technology Assessment that employed more than 100 experts who advised Congress. But that office was eliminated by House Republicans in the 1990s and has never been authorized to return.
We should not be surprised, then, that a gap exists between technology and the governance of technology. Members of Congress today are increasingly career politicians, older Americans serving longer terms, spending large amounts of time fundraising, seeking re-election, responding to constituents and advocacy groups, and without the knowledge, staff or technical expertise to understand the very technologies they utilize everyday. Members of Congress embrace the tools of the tech industry—and gladly accept their $124 million in lobbying money—to maintain their power to regulate and legislate. Yet, they currently do not have the expertise to regulate and legislate in a meaningful way.
There have been efforts to improve the situation; fellowships on Capitol Hill such as the Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Fellows and TechCongress Fellows have brought needed expertise into Congressional offices. In 2019, the House also created a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Yet committees and short-term fellowships can only do so much. One final effect of technology has been that as legislative documents have become longer and more complex, less legislation is being passed. Americans now face a confounding paradox: an older and more experienced Congress that is getting less done, including any meaningful legislation around Big Tech.
For all his brilliance, Dr. Billington’s tenure as Librarian of Congress ended in ignominy. Criticized for not adapting to the digital revolution, Dr. Billington stepped down at the age of 86 years old. It was an incredible feat to serve as long as he did, but in hindsight he had stayed too long. Technology had passed him by, and the institution’s survival and credibility with the American public required fresh ideas and a new perspective. Holding onto power should never become an end in-of-itself, especially in public service where the needs of society and the American people trump your own. Small steps can be taken to push an entrenched and bureaucratic institution to innovate. But stepping aside to allow the next person a seat at the table? Now, that’s innovative.
Have a good week.
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