How technology baffled an elderly Congress in 2018
If you’re trying to recall what your members of Congress accomplished in 2018, the answer is: They grew older.
The 115th Congress was already one of the oldest in history when it convened at the dawn of the Trump administration — average age 58 in the House, 62 in the Senate, 90 billion or so in the relativistic time scale of the online generation, in front of which Congress spent much of the year embarrassing itself. By the time the 115th hobbled into extinction at the end of 2018, artifacts from its attempts to engage the younger folk and their digital ways lay strewn across the internet like the fossil record of an obsolete species.
There were the agonizing video clips from April’s Facebook hearing, in which 68-year-old Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) attempted to ask Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg a question about data privacy, and revealed a conception of social media resembling a wad of tangled Christmas lights: “Do you track devices that an individual who uses Facebook has that is connected to the device that they use for their Facebook connection, but not necessarily connected to Facebook?”
“I’m not — I’m not sure of the answer to that question,” Zuckerberg replied, as if he could even be sure it was a question.
Come December it was the Google chief Sundar Pichai’s turn to visit the Capitol and watch Rep. Steve Cohen, the 69-year-old Democrat from Tennessee, wave his hands in the air and complain: “I use your apparatus often, or your search engine, and I don’t understand all of the different ways that you can turn off the locations. There’s so many different things!”
These hearings were live-streamed to the general populace, more than half of whom are under 40, many of whom were horrified to discover that a country being revolutionized by technology is apparently overseen by people whose worldview calcified in the previous century.
Less surprised, but no less dismayed, were some of the tech advocates who have spent years trying to discuss issues like net neutrality and data privacy on Capitol Hill with representatives and staffers they say are somewhat less than engaged.
“There’s different eras where people come from. It’s hard to transcend that,” said Daniel Schuman, a former Hill staffer who works for a tech-oriented lobbying group, Demand Progress. “It’s like ‘Mad Men.’ You’ve got the secretary who does the typing and the librarian who does the research. Lindsey Graham was bragging about having a flip phone!”
Zach Graves, who regularly commutes between Silicon Valley and D.C. for his work at a free-market tech advocacy group called the Lincoln Network, has been wincing through congressional tech hearings since long before the Google and Facebook spectacles became viral dark comedy.
“There’s lot of run-of-the-mill hearings where that’s about par for the course,” he said. “It’s clear from the kinds of questions they were asking they weren’t prepped properly.”
In particular, he remembers the House Agriculture Committee’s attempt to take on cryptocurrency. Premised on the possibility that bitcoins might fall into the same regulatory category as soybeans and corn, July’s hearing opened with a panel of technologists trying to explain blockchain technology.
A CEO with purple-dyed hair made a particularly diligent effort to connect with the Congress members. “Email allows you to send a digital version of a birthday card to a grandchild instantly,” she wrote in her prepared statement. “Cryptocurrency like bitcoin gives you the ability to put the digital equivalent of $10 inside that card.”
But the generational chasm became apparent when the 74-year-old ranking Democrat, Rep. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, took the mic, rubbed something out of his eyes and announced, “Um. I don’t know where to start.” He explained that he was still uncomfortable with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to abolish the gold standard in 1933, and liked this new idea no better. “They’re just creating this money out of nowhere!” he said.
“The problem you’re having is you DON’T UNDERSTAND TECHNOLOGY YOU 8-track listening fools,” countered one of several hundred cryptocurrency enthusiasts watching the proceedings live on YouTube.
There is a counterargument to this criticism, which issues from the offices of the lawmakers themselves. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who left office Thursday at age 84, was pilloried during April’s Facebook hearings for asking Zuckerberg: “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg replied, smiling cherubically, and video of this exchange instantly became a viral emblem for a doddering Congress.
This irritated Hatch’s communications director, Matt Whitlock, who pointed out that the senator had spoken at length about Facebook’s advertiser-based business model minutes earlier, and asked his infamous question semi-rhetorically, to have Zuckerberg confirm it.
“Senator Hatch has some of the most tech-literate staff on Capitol Hill and has authored more tech legislation than anyone,” Whitlock wrote to the Washington Post. “But he became a meme of tech illiteracy because so many reporters only saw a 12-second video in their Twitter feeds, not the three minutes preceding it.
“Perhaps one part of the problem is Congress-illiteracy among tech reporters.”
Maybe so. And if an elderly Congress is a problem, it’s one the United States has managed throughout its history.
Most Americans (at least the white male ones) had not yet seen their 15th birthday before the first census in 1790, but were governed by a 1st Congress in which the average senator was a Methuselean 47 years old, according to the U.S. Senate Historical Office.
The average age in the Senate has ticked up steadily along with that of the population, as it has in the House since at least the 1940s, when Congressional Quarterly began keeping track of ages in the lower chamber. It’s hard to be certain given incomplete and sometimes inconsistent age records, but the just-concluded 115th Congress appears to have been the oldest in history — with an average age of 58½ as of the day it convened, if you combine Senate Historical Office and CQ figures.
We don’t yet have comprehensive age data for the next Congress, but it convened this week after an election that added a historic number of minorities, women and young people to government. The midterm election quintupled the number of millennials who will hold a House seat, according to the Pew Research Center, though they still make up a paltry share, with just over two dozen seats. Among this new class of digital natives is New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, who will become the youngest woman to join Congress (and who complained about being mistaken for an intern when she toured the Capitol after her election).
“The age difference is a huge disparity,” said Katie Hill, 31, who unseated a Republican incumbent in California’s 25th district in November by campaigning partly on generational issues — not so much technology as college debt, healthcare reform and climate change.
The technology helps, though. Hill said she and a handful of other under-40s elected in November have befriended each other as they prepare to move into their new offices. They chat mostly through text.
When Hill introduces herself to incumbents, she said, she usually does so in person.
“Sometimes they ask, ‘How old are you? If you don’t mind me asking?’” she said. “I say 31, and they start laughing. It blows their mind, how young.”