Congress may have untapped a new tool to protect consumers

Congress may have untapped a new tool to protect consumers
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Like a youth bestowed a newly released Harry Potter book, I devoured the House rules package for the 116th Congress.

The section establishing a temporary bipartisan committee tasked with making suggestions for modernizing Congress, “including recommendations on … technology and innovation,” was particularly eye-catching.

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With such a mandate, lawmakers could leverage this committee to do something great for all Americans: Use technology to establish Congress as a leader in identifying systemic harm to consumers.

In recent years, several national scandals have caught American legislators off guard. Two of the biggest — Wells Fargo’s practice of creating fraudulent financial accounts involving what regulators dubbed a “widespread illegal practice” and myriad problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — provide noteworthy examples of national crises that developed right under Congress' nose. 

Protecting 325 million Americans from bureaucratic blunders and corruption is a daunting challenge. However, Congress may already possess some resources that, if reconfigured, could be a big help.

Each congressional office has a staff of caseworkers charged with managing actionable requests and complaints by constituents. In my experience, these teams are very good at their jobs. I know caseworkers who regularly turn around requests for emergency passport applications within 48 hours (regular channels usually take six to eight weeks).

Congressional offices keep meticulous documentation on their cases, but they generally work independently. If caseworkers input data on their cases into a shared system, Congress would suddenly have a powerful tool for tracking trends and protecting the interests of American consumers.

With constituencies comprised of hundreds of thousands of people, legislators have their hands full simply addressing local problems. But if caseworkers collaborated, perhaps Congress could improve its national effectiveness.

While casework is usually government-related, occasionally constituents seek help with private matters or commercial complaints. In my decade on Capitol Hill, I remember a dozen or so constituent calls related to Wells Fargo accounts that were incorrectly created.

Callers didn’t seem to think Wells Fargo committed anything more than a clerical error, easily cleared up with a phone call to a high-level customer service agent. (How wrong they were.)

Surely, other offices handled similar calls. If each congressional office had logged calls from only 10 constituents about unauthorized Wells Fargo accounts, Congress would have had over 5,000 data points on record — a solid start for an inquiry.

Such a database may not have completely prevented unethical actors at Wells Fargo from inflicting harm on American consumers, but Congress may have discovered the scandal before it made newspaper headlines.

More typically, caseworkers are solving constituent problems related to Social Security benefits, Medicare billing or VA care.

The VA scandal involved VA hospital employees moving patient scheduling off-book for the purpose of making their records qualify for congressionally-mandated bonuses. These actions disrupted actual patient care and have been linked to the deaths of thousands of veterans.

It’s easy to imagine how an analysis of casework-related data could have caught this problem earlier. At the district level, a representative’s office might have dealt with several dozen calls involving veterans and abruptly canceled VA appointments, working diligently to resolve each case.

However, because casework records are typically confined to a single office and accessible only to one staffer, the wider trend of VA dysfunction would have remained obscured.

Rather than reacting to headlines after the VA scandal broke, Congress, with a shared casework database, might have already possessed firm, actionable evidence that something was wrong — potentially saving lives.

Creating such a system would be challenging, and prudential management to protect and anonymize its data would be essential.

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The Congressional Research Service (CRS), sometimes referred to as “Congress’ think tank,” would be a good candidate for managing it. The same people charged with researching the effects of legislation for members of Congress could also serve as watchmen for problems that demand congressional action.

Members of the House and Senate take pride in their casework operations. These activities provide an opportunity for members of Congress to improve the lives of their constituents in tangible, specific ways, but they could be an even greater force for good.

The new Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress should use its technology mandate to explore putting the data from congressional casework operations to better use.

Two years from now, as I devour the 117th Congress’ rules package, I hope to be reading about the newly launched Congressional Casework Database for Consumer Protection.

Beau Brunson is a senior policy advisor at Consumers' Research, the nation's oldest consumer organization.