GPO Says Improved Bill Processing Hinges On New Tech, Gov’t Employee Enthusiasm

Modernizing the way Congress drafts and processes bills and legislation will likely rely on the intersection of new software, hardware and willingness for federal officials to transition into new systems and practices, witnesses testified on Thursday. 

During a hearing held by the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, government employees who help process official government documents and drafts offered their advice for installing new technology to improve legislative transparency and processing. 

Witnesses,including the Director of the Government Publishing Office Hugh Halpern, said the legacy system for handling legislative documents is both archaic and difficult to update. 

“When our predecessors created our system of laws and, more importantly, how we update them…they made some really bad decisions,” Halpern said, referring to former government officials who designed how Congress handles bill drafts. “Those systems don’t scale well. And particularly when they’re coupled with modern technology.”

The GPO is the federal government’s primary printing office that records, catalogs and distributes various documentation, such as bills and other legislative texts, from all branches of government.

Halpern confirmed that the legislative draft process is still primarily centered on manual paper copies with some digital components. He added that errors in the legislative recording process arise when technical issues with the electronic copies unfold. Halpern testified that the long manual process has cultivated frustration among the members of Congress. 

However, Halpern said his office is at a turning point in its modernization plans. He explained that the GPO is incorporating new printing technology, specifically printers that relieve the office of the “time consuming” print press process. 

New software is also on the way, with Halpern saying that the current system is roughly 40 years old. 

“The new system is modern, works on modern standards and is far, far more flexible,” he said. 

However, Halpern emphasized that in addition to new software and hardware technologies, Congress and its staff must be willing to learn a new, more efficient, streamlined system.

“You take that new software stack, you take new output technologies, and you combine that with, frankly, the work that this select committee is doing, which is demonstrating a willingness to take a look at those practices we have had in place for hundreds of years and say ‘hey, maybe we can do something differently.’”

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