Modernizing Congress is a national security imperative

Modernizing Congress is a national security imperative
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Imagine the U.S. in a modern emergency situation — a solar flare, a suspicious electrical grid failure, a pandemic, or bio attack — and the order went out to cease all movement nationwide. This type of situation has happened in recent memory. During the days following Sept. 11, 2001, the grounding of planes across the country became an enduring symbol of terrorism’s crippling impact.

For those whose job it is to imagine the worst, there is a long list of potential emergencies that would require the grounding of planes and prohibition of movement — and some of those might require restrictions for days or weeks. Congress is woefully under-prepared for this situation. In contrast, the Executive Branch (the president and federal agencies) have extensive emergency preparedness plans and communications networks through Homeland Security “fusion centers” and partnerships with local and state governments.

The main function of Congress is democratic discourse and lawmaking. As an institution, it is a massive, centralized communications engine. There are important questions about whether or not Congress can “virtually” convene under the Constitution. But right now, it is not clear that the First Branch of Government is equipped to continue its operations much less its role as a co-equal branch if lawmakers are unable to physically assemble.

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The Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress should be extended to address this critical continuity of government gap in the coming years.

Let’s take grid failure for example. Partial or total electronic systems shutdown puts our participatory, representative process at risk. It compromises the Constitutional prerogatives of the First Branch. Indeed, our modern reliance on digital infrastructure for information makes trustworthy connection vital not only for democratic governing, but also for the social cohesion that binds a nation. Here’s where modernization comes full-center: A secure communications system for Congress should be viewed through a national security lens. Our failure to address this challenge has created a less resilient democracy. Building a secure national electronic infrastructure is a vital step to assure continuity of government in the legislative branch. Already persistent cyberattacks point to the need for this comprehensive overhaul. Potential disasters like solar flares, pandemics or other electro-magnetic disruptions should prod us to action.

While the U.S. Capitol Police has, in recent years, taken steps to better protect the physical safety of lawmakers while they are outside of D.C., there has been much less focus on digital security and efforts to ensure secure connectivity for lawmakers in their districts. (Congress includes some 900 district offices) Moreover, the distributed and disconnected architecture of Congress means that each office, to a certain extent, maintains its own communications technology, with wide variation of technical sophistication and security.

If extended, the Modernization Committee should examine:

  • Establishment of a task force to create a modern continuity plan for Congress, including an examination of best practices from state legislatures and the Executive Branch
  • Potential designation of district offices as “critical infrastructure” 
  • Inclusion of district offices are included in “FirstNet” connectivity planning. (FirstNet is a congressionally mandated emergency channel for public safety)
  • Feasibility of an encrypted communications application for lawmakers and authorized staff with secure, verified log-in 
  • Options for a secure technology platform for House and district offices that includes the capacity to support secure remote communications systems 
  • Mechanisms for district office staff to “report up” to a secure information hub their on-the-ground observations, critical rapid response notices and analysis 
  • Review if members have sufficient state staff with security clearances (and access to facilities to handle classified information)

Capitol Hill has seen many hearings on technology’s impact on society over the past two years. Congress has recognized its own technology competence problem but a persistent blind spot remains. Congress has passed laws, appropriated billions of dollars for the agency technology, funded Executive Branch systems through national security budgets, and interrogated tech industry leaders for their civic failings; yet it has not turned a lens on itself and fully recognized how vulnerable it is.

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Congress has not asked, for example how could lawmakers be verified to allow remote functions, such as additional uses for member voting cards, facial or voice recognition, “multi factor” authentication (e.g., biometrics plus a physical verification by another member or authorized staff). It has not addressed protocols to maintain public transparency and communication in the event of a shutdown. Indeed, it has not even yet addressed the elemental question of whether it is possible to act at a distance at all.

One of the most important features of the American system of government is the “checks and balances” of its three branches. In an emergency, ensuring that all branches continue to function is a national security imperative.

Lorelei Kelly is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

Marci Harris is CEO and cofounder of POPVOX, a nonpartisan platform for legislative information and civic engagement.