How Congress is getting smarter on tech, with Travis Moore
Think Capitol Hill's tech CEO hearings aren't as entirely cringey as they used to be? Here's one reason why — and why that growth's hitting its natural limit.
Putting aside all the recent fun had at the expense of a certain United States senator over “finsta,” there’s an emerging sense that the United States Congress is inching towards being at least marginally better at making sense of technology — as demonstrated by a slight upgrade in the overall quality of hearings the body’s held with tech CEOs and other executives in recent months.
That isn’t coincidence. For one thing, members of Congress are more invested in tackling tech’s big questions than they have been in years past, and it shows. But it’s also the result of a focused effort on the part of people like Travis Moore (@TravisMoore). Moore was a legislative director for a California Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives when he got frustrated by the lack of in-house resources available to him when his job was to make sense of a big cybersecurity bill with major privacy implications.
It drove Moore to seek answers from the tech industry, and he didn’t like that.
And so, in 2015 Moore started a program, as part of the left-of-center think tank New America, called TechCongress. The goal of the program was to up Capitol Hill’s native tech-policy capacity. TechCongress spun out from New America this fall, and to date has placed dozens of computer scientists, engineers, and others in Democratic and Republican offices across Capitol Hill, from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s operation to the shop of Senate Minority Whip John Thune.
Moore and I talked by phone about the nitty-gritty of TechCongress’s theory of change, how the model’s learned to adapt to the oddball place that is the United States Congress, and what he’s finding about the limits on the institution’s capacity to change. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Scola: Thanks for calling me back. I called you and it went right to…
Moore: I must have amped up the security settings. I spent 20 minutes on Friday digging into this, in part because I had a funder call me and it got sent right into voicemail. [Laughing.]
I have no idea what I’ve done. Wish me luck.
You’re like the lost hiker who didn’t answer the call from rescuers because they didn’t recognize the number. Okay, let’s start at the beginning. How did TechCongress become a thing?
I started TechCongress because I needed it when I was a staffer. You may remember CISPA, the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act. The bill was controversial, and I had to make a vote recommendation to Congressman Waxman1 that hinged on my understanding of a provision that granted limited liability immunity to companies if they accidentally shared PII [a.k.a. Personal Identifiable Information] when sharing cyberthreat info with the government.
So I found myself trying to understand what PII was, frankly. What would it mean for a company to anonymize data? What I found was there wasn’t anyone in Congress that could answer those questions. And as a consequence, I went outside the building — to a tech company — for that advice.
That made me deeply uncomfortable.
So here’s the question I’ve long wanted to ask you about the whole TechCongress model. It’s impossible to be an expert on ‘tech’ when that includes everything from cybersecurity to privacy to AI to content moderation and beyond. Is a fellow really going to have a better sense of most of those than a smart House or Senate staffer would with a few hours of research?
The theory of change here is not that we’re going to have an expert who’s deep and narrow in, you know, computing vision or deep fakes. As a staffer, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t even know the first question to ask because my understanding of the underlying technology was so basic. We don’t recruit around specific tech expertise. But those individuals, when in the building, can start by asking the right questions.
It’s having the ability to call BS, to gut check so that you can get to the right answers — that’s the theory behind all this.
“What I found was there wasn’t anyone in Congress that could answer those questions. And as a consequence, I went outside the building — to a tech company — for that advice.
That made me deeply uncomfortable.”
There are hundreds of members of Congress and dozens of committees on the Hill. How do you decide who gets a fellow?
They get to choose their placements, and we coach them through the process.
One of the core learnings has been to develop a three-part test, and part one is whether the office is an existing evangelist — or at least is already bought in on — the set of issues the fellow wants to work on.
Early on, we weren’t sure. There’s the argument that, “Oh, you should send the fellow to the member that needs the most help.” But we found that you should be pushing a boulder down the hill. If the office isn’t bought in, the fellow will spend the bulk of their fellowship convincing the office that that set of issues matter.
Briefly, test two is whether the office has the jurisdiction or platform to be active on the issue fellow cares about. If you want to work on defense procurement, you’ve got to get on Armed Services. And the third piece is the office cultural fit. Are you reporting to someone who reports directly to the boss? Physical space is actually the biggest constraint. Pre-COVID, as many as 50 percent of offices couldn’t take on a fellow because they literally didn’t have a desk.
Our theory of change is that with 50 technologists in the right seats in Congress we can fundamentally upskill the institution. We don’t need 435 fellows. We want to use the program to galvanize the institution to invest in itself. The principal way we do that — and our express goal — is to convert fellows into full-time roles.
If the goal’s to convert TechCongress fellows into full-time staffers, what’s the success rate so far?
We’ve got ten that have hired on out of 39 that have graduated, and we’re improving on it. Our goal is to build the program to 24 fellows annually and convert between a quarter and third into full-time staff. We need another 40. We can do that by 2026 and then put ourselves out of business in Congress.
We started with only a mid-career program, and we found very quickly that we had all these early-career folks — a lot of people finishing master’s degree programs, or with two to five years experience — really, really wanting to this do this work and do it as a career. The mid-career folks are like, “I’d like to learn about Congress. I’d love to get some experience in government.” The early-career folks are saying, “Listen, I have this tech expertise. And yeah, I know I could go into the industry and make a ton of money, but I want to work at big, complex problems at scale.”
And they can do that in government. The [Silicon Valley] companies are huge now. Eight years ago, if you’re going to one of the larger tech companies, you could still have an outsized impact. That now’s just not the case.
“Our theory of change is that with 50 technologists in the right seats in Congress we can fundamentally upskill the institution. “
But the Hill’s a big place. How is placing just 50 fellows ever going to be enough?
If you have 50 in the right seats, what you have is, if an issue is moving, a technologist will touch it. They’ll have their fingerprints on it in a way that improves the thing in a constructive way.
Where are offices going to take the money from to convert a paid-for TechCongress fellow to a full-time staffer?
This is the challenge. Office budgets are really hard and right now it’s zero-sum. Those who’ve stayed on are filling an open seat. Congress doesn’t have the money to just hire for an extra role. There’s not that kind of flexibility. So if you say, “We’re Senate Commerce, we need a chief technologist, we’ll just have 100k we can throw at it.” No, that money just doesn’t exist. I’m hoping that budget increases will help with that.
Another reason we’re focused on early-career folks is because, you know, our stipend for the program is 60k annual. And with that, they can convert into a House [legislative assistant] role or, on a committee, a junior professional staff member role.
“Members of Congress get it. They know this work is complicated, that they’re in over their heads, and that they need to find ways to better source expertise on tech. They will say that to you.
But a lot of this comes down to budgets.”
These high-profile congressional hearings where Mark Zuckerberg or other tech industry executives testify — do you see them, and the questions members ask, as any sort of real metric for whether the Hill actually has a better grasp of tech? Or are they too surface level to suggest any real meaningful change?
It’s a useful marker. I mean, if you put the 2018 Zuckerberg hearings against the last three Senate Commerce consumer protection [subcommittee] hearings, it’s night and day. And we’ve had fellows or alumni work with seven of the members who participated in those hearings.
I would just sound a hopeful note: members of Congress get it. They know this work is complicated, that they’re in over their heads, and that they need to find ways to better source expertise on tech. They will say that to you.
But a lot of this comes down to budgets.
“When I was a staffer, I had a list. On each issue, who’s the office I’m going to call?…
My belief is that you want individuals in the building with tech training who can be part of that first-call network.”
Given those constraints, can you really break congressional offices of their reliance on industry lobbyists who, whatever spin the put on the issue, are in my experience generally smart and always available to at least help explain the basics?
Staff are always going to rely on lobbyists. I don’t believe that lobbyist is a dirty term. If you’re going to be a good staffer and you’re working on an issue, lobbyists are a resource. If you’re going to try to move forward on an issue and you’re not engaging with the groups that have an interest in that issue, then you’re not doing your job.
That doesn’t mean that there still should be a more independent resource that has the public interest — or at least their constituents’ interests — in mind when they’re considering issues.
When I was a staffer, I had a list. On each issue, who’s the office I’m going to call? When I had a question on oceans, I called [coastal California Democrat] Lois Capps’ office. When I had a question about the PATRIOT Act, I called [New York Democrat and House Judiciary Committee chairman] Jerry Nadler’s office.
My belief is that you want individuals in the building with tech training who can be part of that first-call network. Even if they’re not the experts, at a minimum they can slice and dice the feedback they’re getting from interest groups.
Thanks for the chat. Anything else?
[Code for America founder and former deputy U.S. CTO] Jen Pahlka talked about this in your interview with her. It’s really hard for government to take risks and try new things.
When COVID hit, Congress literally goes dark for the six weeks during the biggest health and economic crisis in three generations because they didn’t have digital infrastructure to function. And so we did a Congressional Digital Service Fellowship pilot to help execute on some of these urgent digital capacity gaps.
Then there was the work that a group of us did on sexual harassment following the Weinstein allegations. It was former staffers coming together, having lived the problems of the institution, understanding the structural craziness and the way that the culture made it nearly impossible to come forward.
We as a non-profit have the ability to pilot and build the kind of things that government just can’t and doesn’t. One of the things we’ve really tried to do is, when a crisis hits, there’s an opportunity for us to posit constructive solutions.
Seems like that’s the work you can keep doing in 2026, after the TechCongress fellows have put themselves out of business.
Learn more about what TechCongress is up to here.
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A disclaimer: Moore and I once shared a boss in Congressman Henry Waxman, but I left that life behind a long time ago, last working on Waxman’s committee staff in 2006.