The 2022 midterms were plagued by widespread misinformation on social media, for the fourth consecutive election. From myths about the 2020 election being “stolen” to false claims that technical glitches are proof of voter fraud, the lies bombarding American voters have real consequences for democracy. Yet the U.S. Congress has passed virtually no legislation to counter the threat of online misinformation about elections (or anything else), despite bipartisan agreement that it is necessary. Why?
Congressional inertia has many causes, from the Senate filibuster to lobbying by powerful interests. One under-examined reason for the inaction on tech is that there is no congressional committee focused on it.
This is solvable. And it’s more important than ever to take it on, along with other structural issues in Congress.
Much of the in-depth policy work of Congress happens in committees that focus on specific subjects. But the last time Congress reorganized committee jurisdictions was in the 1970s, before the internet.
Today no committee has clear jurisdiction over tech policy. This was evident in the 2018 Facebook hearing which was a joint effort of two Senate committees — Commerce and Judiciary — and included about half of the Senate. Since then, committees like Homeland Security and Energy and Commerce have held hearings and tried to advance social media legislation but failed.
Without a committee dedicated to technology, no group of members has had the chance to learn about the issue’s many facets. That makes well-crafted tech legislation less likely. As a Senate legislative director with years of experience in both chambers told me, “Your knowledge of the issues is obviously going to be much deeper if you’ve been involved with a committee.”
In addition, with tech policy spread across multiple committees, comprehensive regulation is harder to develop. Some innovative proposals have emerged, such as the bipartisan Honest Ads Act that would update rules for online political ads, but they tend to focus on one aspect of the issue (and have yet to pass).
It’s clear that, to effectively regulate social media, Congress should create dedicated committees on tech policy in the House and Senate. But those new committees won’t be successful unless Congress invests in more expert staff for committees across the board.
Because committee members can’t master every policy area, they rely on staff to draft questions for hearings, write legislation, and inform themselves and their colleagues. Yet committee staff numbers have dwindled to the point members are having trouble getting the expertise and counsel they need.
In 2015, the entire legislative branch had fewer than 20,000 employees, several thousand fewer than it did in the 1980s. Moreover, today’s staff tend to be relatively early in their careers. The average staffer is in their twenties and has worked their job for several years. Though they may use social media, inexperienced staff frequently lack policy expertise. In the vacuum of policy and subject matter expertise, outside lobbyists tend to jump in.
In my research about congressional committees, I spoke with dozens of Hill staffers who said they lacked the necessary expertise or resources to support their bosses in hearings about technology. At the 2018 Zuckerberg hearing, some members used their limited time for technical questions that they could have looked into with their staffs, rather than asking Zuckerberg about issues they could not learn about elsewhere.
The work by staff with specialized knowledge can play a big role in developing effective bills about complex policy issues. The people who have the expertise to do that work must be recruited and retained. Fortunately, the House has a tool that members should use immediately to that end: the new one-stop-shop HR hub for staff. The Senate should build a similar hub.
Of course, HR hubs can only go so far. It’s up to Congress to create enough new positions for a significant upgrade in staff expertise in tech and other areas. It’s up to Congress to establish a tech committee and otherwise make the committee structure meet current demands.
Our next Congress will be closely divided. This sets the level of difficulty for committees even higher. Congress must do whatever it can to draw more expertise into committee staffing and modernize the structure.
A lot has happened since the 1970s. Congress and its committees need to up to the challenges facing Americans today. Dr. Maya Kornberg is the author of “Inside Congressional Committees: Function and Dysfunction in Lawmaking,” forthcoming from Columbia University Press (February 2023). Kornberg leads research for the Elections and Government Program at NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.