Congress has developed a reputation for its general lack of tech experience, but a new political action committee wants to fix that by starting at the top.
The group, 314 Action, plans to put money behind candidates who can keep up with complex technology issues at a time when they inevitably land on the mainstream legislative agenda.
Congress continues to make the need for more STEM expertise apparent as members’ questioning in hearings on tech issues falls short, says Shaughnessy Naughton, president of 314 Action, which brands itself as a Democratic PAC focused on electing “more leaders to the U.S. Senate, House, State Executive and Legislative offices who come from STEM backgrounds.” Even though some congressional offices might have tech-savvy staffers, 314 Action’s goal is more focused on bringing in new elected officials with that knowledge.
Naughton pointed in particular to questions asked of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg during multiple hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this year amid the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
“When you watch those Facebook hearings, that was just, you know, beyond embarrassment,” she told FedScoop. “It’s really reckless that so many of our legislators really don’t understand fundamental aspects of our modern economy.”
Naughton, an entrepreneur with a degree in chemistry, has made two unsuccessful bids for Congress. But she has used that experience from running in founding 314 Action, which has endorsed several candidates with technology backgrounds in their runs for House seats in 2018.
314 Action’s original focus was more on science and medicine, given Naughton’s background. But she said the organization is “really encouraged” to see technologists and engineers step up.
“Whether it comes to privacy or automation or technology, I think having people that understand how we can benefit but also how we have to prepare for technology and the changes that it brings” is important, Naughton said.
So far the PAC has donated $162,000 directly to about three dozen Democratic candidates in 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of those donations were $5,000 or $10,000.
Who’s in Congress today?
There are a few techies on Capitol Hill today, but it’s certainly not the norm. According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, there are six software company executives in the House and two in the Senate.
Quoting CQ’s Guide to the New Congress, CRS notes that law is the dominant declared profession for senators, whereas business is the dominant declared profession for representatives.
“No question Congress has historically been populated with folks from the legal profession or state legislatures,” said Andy Halataei, senior vice president of government affairs of the Information Technology Industry Council. “We’re starting to see just a slow shift in the other direction where… members of Congress are getting elected with business backgrounds including tech.”
Halataei said it’s helpful for people to have familiarity with the subjects they are going to legislate on, so ITI is “encouraged” by the trend.
Asked about the Facebook hearings, Halataei noted that it’s always tough “when you’re still discussing, kind of tech 101, and not moving on to proactive solutions.”
It can make for a longer conversation, he said.
“In general, on a range of tech issues, whether it’s privacy or AI, there’s a lot of details to get right,” Halataei said. “And the more experience and understanding you bring to the table I think the better solution you’re going to get when Congress is attempting to legislate on an area.”
If 314 Action succeeds, it would be adding to a small but active number of tech-oriented members in the House and Senate. Some hearings get very deep into technology-related topics, noted David Powner, the outgoing director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office. He cited the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on IT’s hearings on the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act.
“Those hearings get at a level that’s fairly deep on not only IT acquisitions but cyber issues and efficient IT operations from, you know, data center operations and metrics there and that type of stuff,” Powner said. “So it doesn’t go deep, deep, deep into the weeds, but you could actually kind of counter that. I think there are those pockets in Congress that you do dive into those issues fairly deeply.”
He added that many questions in oversight hearings end up not being tech-related at all but instead questions “about cost and schedule and delivery” from someone without a tech background. Others have pointed out the general lack of professional diversity among the ranks of federal lawmakers.
Powner highlighted Republican Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and Greg Gianforte of Montana for their technology-related backgrounds and as members of the Subcommittee on IT. Gianforte and his wife founded RightNow Technologies, which sold to Oracle in 2012. Hurd, a former CIA agent who has a degree in computer science and served as a senior adviser for a cybersecurity firm, chairs the subcommittee.
Hurd isn’t familiar with the Democrat-sponsored 314 Action — so far it has exclusively funded Democratic candidates — but he agreed Congress “definitely” needs more members with technology backgrounds.
“One major reason is because I think the technological change we’re going to see in the next 30 years is going to make the last 30 years look insignificant,” Hurd said. “And we have to be prepared for that.”
He pointed to the Facebook hearings as an example of “how terrible the common body of knowledge is when it comes to issues of technology.”
One 314 Action-endorsed candidate, Democrat Suneel Gupta, was in a primary Tuesday for Michigan’s 11th congressional district.
“In order to understand how decisions are being made that affect everybody’s lives, we need to be able to ask the right questions,” Gupta said in an interview when asked about the Facebook hearings. “And in order to ask the right questions, we certainly need people who have the right understanding.”
He said it was clear during Zuckerberg’s testimony “that wasn’t the case.”
“We didn’t have enough people who actually have that understanding of really what was going on,” said Gupta, who was Groupon’s first vice president of product development and later co-founded and served as CEO of a mobile health company called Rise.
Gupta said he would have focused on the tension between “Facebook’s wanting to create the user experience that fits their business model, versus the user experience that has sort of overall public good and privacy of data in mind.”
His work in STEM, he said, taught him how to solve problems, use data and think critically, adding that his experience taught him “how to work with anyone” to solve problems.
“And I think we need more of that,” he said.
Another of 314 Action’s endorsed candidates, Joseph Kopser, noted that a lot of people of various successful careers — not just tech — stay out of politics because it’s “ugly,” “hard” and “ there are so many barriers to participation.”
Kopser, who has already won the Democratic nomination for the 21st congressional district in Texas, said 314 Action was “a great source of encouragement.”
Kopser, a 20-year Army veteran with a degree in aerospace engineering, is also a technology entrepreneur. He was a co-founder and served as CEO of RideScout, which merged with Portland-based GlobeSherpa in 2016 to become moovel.
“It’s important for a policymaker, like I’m trying to be, to be someone who has been on all sides of that fence, in technology and the policy side,” he said. “And I am convinced I am going be a part of better legislation because I’ve had experience in seeing firsthand where technology and policy don’t mesh well together.”
While in the Army, for example, Kopser worked on an effort to design equipment for the future. The effort sought to pair warfighters with technologists, but it was ultimately unsuccessful.
It wasn’t getting the results, he said, “because our research, and design and procurement system in the federal government was governed by laws that were decades old that didn’t reflect the value of understanding how fast technology moves, and how fast technology was replacing older systems.”
Kopser said he’s passionate about getting warfighters and federal decision-makers closer to innovators and entrepreneurs who can provide solutions. He pointed to AFWERX opening a hub in Austin as a recent example.
“They’re seeing what I saw seven years ago, and have been trying to stand on the highest ground and say, ‘Look, if you bring the warfighter, the service member, the federal government, the decision makers together more closely with the actual innovators, entrepreneurs and folks that have the capability to provide solutions, together, then great things happen out of it,” he said.
While he’s been excited to be a part of all this work, Kopser said he’s eager to do it in Congress “on a much larger scale.”
While it’s uncertain what will happen Kopser and Gupta, Naughton noted that it’s important for technologists and scientists to continue to run for Congress despite the outcomes of their races.
“One thing I try to always convey to candidates is that when you run a credible campaign and talk about issues that are important to your community, you contribute to the dialogue, whether you ultimately win the election or not,” she said.