California lawmaker strives to bring technology innovation to House

The freshman congressman who is leading the charge for a mobile Congress is sitting where he is today partly because one former representative phoned it in.

This week, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) will introduce his plan to allow members of Congress to attend hearings by video and vote on noncontroversial bills remotely from their districts — a proposal he has pushed since the early days of his campaign.  

ADVERTISEMENT
But he might not have pursued a bid for Congress if fellow Democrat and former Rep. Pete Stark (Calif.)  — the man he ultimately defeated — had shown up to a scheduled meeting with Swalwell a few years ago. Swalwell, instead, settled for a phone call. 

“Congressman Stark calls in from home, and I talk to him and his staff on speakerphone,” Swalwell told The Hill. “I left that meeting thinking, ‘This guy is not up to the job anymore.’ Literally, he was phoning it in.” 

In 2011, Swalwell sat on the city council in Dublin, Calif., represented at the time by Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney. But redistricting ensured that Stark, or whoever replaced him, would represent the city after the election.  

That year, Swalwell and a few friends had embarked on a trip to Ocean City, Md. Swalwell had scheduled meetings with a number of California representatives while passing through Washington.

His last meeting of the trip was scheduled with Stark, who was dean of the California delegation at the time and had served longer than Swalwell had been alive.  

Swalwell said redistricting and California’s new primary system, which allowed two Democrats to advance to the general election, made Stark vulnerable. After the missed meeting, Swalwell had a motivation to run.

“He didn’t show up for the meeting and his staff — I’ll never forget it – they told me he was having transportation problems and couldn’t make it,” he said.

Swalwell said his current proposal is not aimed at reducing the congressional schedule or excusing members’ absence. Instead, he intends to make the House more efficient. 

The freshman has already found two Republican co-sponsors — Reps. Steve Pearce (N.M.) and Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.). Swalwell said he borrowed a few ideas from Pearce who introduced his own version in March — and had also done so once before, in the 112th Congress. 

But unlike Pearce’s resolution, the new proposal would only allow remote voting on suspension bills — noncontroversial bills that require a two-thirds majority of those voting to pass. More than half, 52 percent, of all legislation in the 112th Congress was brought under suspension rules, according to the Congressional Research Service. 

Swalwell pointed out one such measure approved in March that gave permission for a soapbox derby to be held on Capitol grounds. It passed with 386 votes in favor. Forty-five people didn’t vote. 

“I would rather see us better use our time when we are under the dome, rather than bring and corral 435 members to vote on the soapbox derby bill,” he said. 

In Swalwell’s opinion, remote voting would leave more time for debate on substantive topics. He pushed back against the idea that implementing the new technology would exacerbate a lack of personal relationships among members.

He also concluded that tradition alone is not enough to stifle the resolution. Unlike the Senate, the House already votes through an electronic ballot on the floor and has been doing so since 1973. Swalwell illustrated the process in a seven-second video sent through the Vine app last week.

“The tradition of Congress also didn’t have women’s bathrooms on the House floor,” Swalwell said. “I think it is important that traditions be updated with the times that they are in. And I don’t think technology should be an exception.”

Swalwell hails from the northern part of Silicon Valley, which perhaps in part explains his embrace of technology. His use of technology goes back to his days as a prosecutor in California and undoubtedly helped draw a contrast between the 32-year-old Swalwell and his 80-year-old opponent last year.

When prosecuting human trafficking cases in the district attorney’s office, Swalwell said he used Facebook and MySpace to help ensure victims showed up to testify. In one murder case against a “C-level rapper,” Swalwell said he found a key piece of motive evidence in a deeply buried YouTube video that had less than a dozen views. 

“Just as I used technology to try and persuade jurors, I think we can use technology — and I’m already using technology — to try and persuade or inform my constituents [and colleagues].”

During the campaign last year, his staff and volunteers use  a mobile app when knocking on voters’ doors, which saved time printing and logging data. 

Yet he used the bygone technology of microfiche for one of the more biting ads of his campaign against his opponent. 

During Stark’s first campaign 40 years earlier, he had run in a similar position as Swalwell: The newcomer seeking to unseat an out-of-touch incumbent. 

Swalwell’s staff scoured through the database to track down print ads from that time in an attempt to show that Stark had become what he once derided. 

“It was the perfect symmetry to show that 40 years later he had become what he had ran against,” he said. 

“I certainly do not want to be the third side-by-side 30 or 40 years down the road. I hope to know when it is time to move on.”