Coders in Congress are still a rare breed

If you think legislators should know how to program to effectively legislate these days, then don’t expect much from the incoming 114th Congress

Freshman members of the incoming U.S. 114th Congress pose for a class photo on the steps of the U.S.
Credit: REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Speaking this past weekend at the Every Second Counts Forum in London, Tim Berners-Lee, the man who created the World Wide Web, shared his strong belief that today’s legislators should know how to code. He was quoted in The Guardian as saying,

“We need more people in parliament who can code, not because we need them to spend their time coding but because they have got to understand how powerful a weapon it is, so that they can make laws that require people to code to make machines behave in different ways.”

I’m not sure about the coding know-how of the current members of the British parliament, but I can safely say that when it comes to experience in writing software, the members of the current U.S. Congress are sorely lacking - and it won’t be getting much better with the newly elected members who take office in January.

Based on my own research earlier this year, I could only find one out of the 535 members of the current 113th Congress who had a background working as a software engineer or developer: Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana. There was hope that at least one more programmer would join him in the form of Dave Cole, an experienced developer who was running a very interesting (and open) campaign for Congress from New Jersey. Unfortunately, Cole lost in the Democratic primary to Bill Hughes, Jr. (a lawyer) who, in turn lost in the general election to the Republican incumbent, Frank LoBiondo (a businessman).

Even though Cole wasn’t elected, 70 other new members were about two weeks ago and will take office as part of the 114th Congress in January. After taking a look at the bios of all of them, Tim Berners-Lee will be sorry to hear that only a couple would appear to have any knowledge of computer coding. I couldn’t find any evidence that any of them had ever been employed as a software developer. I did, however, find two that had degrees in computer science. They are:

  • Will Hurd, a Republican who will represent Texas’ 23rd district. After earning his CS degree from the University of Texas A&M in 2000, Hurd worked for the CIA in counterterrorism and was a senior adviser with the cybersecurity firm FusionX.
  • Ted Lieu, a Democrat elected from California’s 33rd district. After earning a CS degree from Stanford, Lieu served in the Air Force and became a lawyer.

Hurd and Lieu seem to be the only two new incoming members of Congress who’ve had actual exposure to coding, at least in the academic sense. I did find a handful of others who had some experience working for technology companies, such as Barry Loudermilk from Georgia, Rod Blum from Iowa, Steve Daines from Montana, Thom Tillis from North Carolina and Mia Love from Utah, but I got the impression they all worked in marketing or business roles and weren’t digging their hands into code. Like most members of Congress, the vast majority of those newly elected had previously worked as lawyers, business people or non-coding professionals of other sorts.

If you, like Tim Berners-Lee, believe that legislators should have some basic familiarity with programming, then the news really isn’t very good here in the U.S. By my count, the number of members of the incoming 114th Congress who have actually written code for a living will be the same as the number of members who have experience castrating pigs. Squeal if you think that’s a good thing.

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