A growing workload. Increasingly complex policy decisions. Frustrated constituents. Fewer resources to do the job. This is the new normal for the United States Congress, where Members and staff must do much more with far less: personal office budgets have been slashed 21% since 2011, according to the House Administration Committee. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There are three rational responses to this difficult new reality: Congress weakens itself to a point where it can no longer fulfill its constitutional obligations; Congress reverses its severe, self-imposed spending and staffing cuts; or Congress turns to innovative technologies to accomplish its critical mission for America.
From budgeting to staffing, constituent communications to lawmaking itself, every aspect of Congress is in need of innovation, and an overhaul. Developing and deploying better technology and more tech-savvy staff on Capitol Hill is no longer a choice, but a necessity. And while recent initiatives in and around the legislative branch — such as the bipartisan Bulk Legislative Data Taskforce, hackathons and new technology fellowships — are showing promise, those are far from sufficient solutions for an institution as large, tradition-bound and paper-based as the United States Congress.
These are challenging times. But failure is not an option–all Americans have a stake in successfully creating a 21st century Congress. And we here at The OpenGov Foundation, along with many civic-minded allies, are contributing open source code and collaborating with dedicated Hill staff to support ongoing institutional modernization efforts.
Helping Congress make the most informed, effective and sound innovation investments possible is precisely why we have been pouring over House and Senate disbursement information. If each half of Congress and all legislative branch support agencies must overhaul their systems, culture and processes — something everyone should be able to agree upon— decision-makers must have a crystal-clear real-time picture of three data points, down to the penny: exactly how much Congress spends, on what Congress is spending, and what bang America is getting for all those billions of taxpayer bucks. Only then can one fully and accurately assess whether Congress is spending wisely — or if adopting new, tech-powered approaches is truly the best pathway to a 21st century legislative branch.
$288,356,000 Spent on Tech in 2014?
We recently analyzed available Senate disbursement data in attempt to find out how much the upper chamber spent on technology and tech-related staff in 2014. By our methodology, the answer is at least $106,356,000.
Applying the same methodology to disbursement information published by the House, the lower chamber spent at least $182,000,000 in 2014. The 2014 total across both houses of Congress: at least $288,356,000. [Note: this amount does not include legislative branch support agencies, such as the Congressional Research Service or Government Publishing Office, for which granular spending information was not publicly available.]
Is $288,356,000 too much? Too little? We don’t know due to serious, perhaps fatal, data quality issues. That said, $288,356,000 is the best publicly available tally of tech- and digital-related congressional disbursements. We have published all of our data and work on Github so that anyone—especially those in and around Congress with access to better spending information—can build off our work. As with the Senate, we won’t judge the wisdom or efficacy of these spending decisions; however, for those who are interested, we have visualized some disbursement data at the end of this post to make it easier to understand.
We repeat: while this analysis is far from complete, it is teed up for anyone wishing to build on it. If that is you, we would love to hear from you. For those thinking of continuing our research, we want to be upfront and transparent about what we went through to get to this point. So here is a taste of what you’ll face.
The Impact of Inaccurate & Incomplete Congressional Spending Data
Here are a few examples of what it is like to work with the spending information published by the House and the Senate. Remember: this is the only publicly-available means for anyone — journalist, citizen, or good government group — to find out where their taxpayers go on Capitol Hill. So we set aside our experience with Congress, stepped back and queried the cleaned up disbursement data (tip of the cap to the Sunlight Foundation).
Query: How Much is Spent on Telecommunications?
Example House Expenditure: Verizon
Telecommunications technology is critical to congressional operations. It is also expensive. Costs can vary wildly from vendor to vendor and product to product. A flip phone is much less expensive, for example, than a brand new iPhone. How much is being spent on all telecom tech? Given the data issues, that is impossible to answer comprehensively and directly. So let’s query smaller: in 2014, how much did the House spend on a single telecom vendor, “VERIZON.”
Results: Using this spreadsheet, search for the vendor name. What you’ll find is at least 12 different results. Is the expenditure to “VERIZON,” or “CITI PCARD-VERIZON RECURRING PAY” or “CITI PCARD-VERIZON ONETIMEPAYMENT” or “CITI PCARD-FSI VERIZON” or “CITI PCARD-VZWRLSS”? If you stopped after tallying up just the “VERIZON” expenditures, you would have missed tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Query: How Much Is Spent on Web Development & Support?
Example House Expenditure: Lockheed Martin
Using the same information, we attempted to find out how much the House spent on web development and support. For the same reasons, that was a dead end. So let’s query smaller: in 2014, how much did the House spend on a single, large web vendor: “LOCKHEED MARTIN.”
Results: Is it “LOCKHEED MARTIN DESKTOP SOLUTIONS INC.” ($1,422,813.38)? Or “LOCKHEED MARTIN SERVICES INC.” ($9,677.05)? Without knowing the company (it provides constituent management and email services) you would have missed the $6,448,356.32 spent on “DESKTOP SOLUTIONS, INC” and the $172,800 spent on “LM SERVICES DESKTOP SOLUTIONS INC.” That’s more than $6.5 million in technology-related spending one would miss.
Example House Expenditure: LexisNexis
Legal research is a core task performed in congressional offices. Most of the research is done using subscription-based legal information providers. For the same reasons as above, a House-wide answer is impossible right now. So let’s query smaller: in 2014, how much did the House spend on a single legal data provider: “LEXISNEXIS.”
Results: Unfortunately our simple query for how much taxpayer money goes to the biggest private-sector legal data company in the world failed.
Is the taxpayer money going to “LEXIS NEXIS MATTHEW BENDER” ($4,034.00)? Or to “LEXIS-NEXIS” ($633,175.79)? Or to “MATTHEW BENDER & COMPANY INC” ($42,800.67), yet another sibling of LexisNexis operating under the Netherlands- and London-based global behemoth RELX? Again, it is all but impossible to accurately account for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
Visualizations of House Tech and Digital Media Spending
There are clearly many disclaimers when looking at this information because of the poor data quality in the way spending information is reported publicly. Also, due to fluctuations in reporting periods and the inaccuracies in expenditure years, we had to combine multiple spreadsheets to make a more comprehensive analysis of possible spending in 2014. Using raw data from the Sunlight Foundation’s House Expenditure Reports Database, we created and sorted the data to identify and classify technology-related spending. All these classifications are available here on Github and we encourage anyone to investigate and improve on this analysis.
Payees Over $1 million (According to Available Data)
- Unknown — $14,883,008
- CDW Government Inc. C/O ISM IN — $10,860,945
- Novitex Government Solutions LLC — $9,178,103
- Verizon — $8,230,925
- Desktop Solutions INC — $6,849,585
- AT&T — $6,448,356
- iConstituent LLC — $3,416,076
- Intelligent Decisions INC — $3,173,513
- Fireside21 — $2,211,533
- IronBrick Associates INC — $2,051,750
- CQ Roll Call INC — $1,958,783
- Housecall — $1,880,722
- Switch Communications Group — $1,824,299
- Avaya — $1,750,893
- Bloomberg Businessweek — $1,589,371
- Cybermedia Technologies INC — $1,554,336
- Lockheed Martin Desktop Solutions INC — $1,422,813
- The Franking Group — $1,266,900
- Xcential Group LLC — $1,215,816
- Dell Marketing LP — $1,066,327
- Advance Digital Systems INC — $1,035,021
Top 11 Purpose Activities (According to Available Data)
- Technology Service Contracts — $23,732,965
- TelecomSRV/EQ/TOLL Charge — $21,469,624
- Non-Technology Service Contr — $13,030,416
- Publications/Reference Mat’l — $12,627,844
- Printing & Reproduction — $11,799,142
- Maintenance / Repairs — $10,364,370
- Computer Hardw Purch Greater than or = $25,000 — $9,002,703
- DC Telecom Tolls (Transfer) — $7,207,420
- Computer Hardw Purch Less than $25,000 — $6,475,924
- Web Dev Hst,Email & Rltd Serv — $4,279,438
- Utilities — $3,900,676
Spending of Selected Legislative Support Offices (According to Available Data)
- Chief Admin Ofcr of the House — $62,578,355
- Clerk of the House — $5,416,184
- CAO Advanced Business Solution — $3,556,368
- Communications Services — $2,348,162
- Legislative Counsel — $1,343,259
- Law Revision Counsel — $1,021,309
- Sergeant at Arms — $907,380
Spending of Selected Legislative Support Offices (According to Available Data)
- Committee on Appropriations — $1,778,012
- Joint Committee on Taxation — $1,409,675
- Comm on Oversight & Govt Reform — $879,793
- Committee on Financial Service — $849,069
- Committee on Ways and Means — $794,703
- Homeland Security — $766,561
- Committee on Energy & Commerce — $723,831
Seamus Kraft is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The OpenGov Foundation.