Making decisions in congress: The need for more business intelligence

With the 110th Congress sworn in this month, it's time to focus on the Legislative Branch.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK

My charter in this BI Network is to write about business intelligence and government. But most of my columns to date have been focused on the Executive Branch, mainly that part of our government that has the mission of running the day-to-day operations of the public framework under which we collectively live. However, there are two other branches of government under the basic tripartite approach first outlined by Montesquieu, the French political philosopher. They are: the Legislative and the Judiciary. Again, let us remember how this so-called system of “separation of powers” is supposed to work.

Having suffered the capriciousness of living under absolute monarchs, the French were looking for ways in which political power could be separated in order to avoid abuses and excesses. Montesquieu’s approach basically divided the political process into three pieces: making the rules, running the government under these rules, and resolving any differences that came between the rule makers and the rule enforcers. These three components became embodied slightly differently in many countries, but basically they are represented by three branches of government: Executive, Legislative and Judiciary. 

So then back to Congress. This is the Legislative body of the U.S. Federal government. In our system, we have a bicameral legislature. That means that the Congress has two houses: the Upper House or Senate and the Lower House or House of Representatives. The Senate has 100 members, two from each state, elected for a period of six years. The House of Representatives, on the other hand, has 435 members (a number that is established by the Congress itself through specific legislation and has hence changed over the years) and each is elected for a period of two years. The size of a state’s Congressional delegation (the number of representatives from that state) is apportioned according to the actual population of each state established through the Decennial Census mandated by the Constitution. The actual apportionment method is based on a complex algorithm (defined by legislation) which has changed over time (see Business Intelligence and Apportionment). The current approach is referred to as “the method of equal proportions.”  

Most of the real work of Congress is done in committees and subcommittees. This is where hearings are held and legislation is drafted and debated. Both the Senate and the House have committees that address similar issues even though they may be called something different. The Senate has committees on: Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Aging; Appropriations; Armed Services; Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs; Budget; Commerce, Science and Transportation; Energy and Natural Resources; Environment and Public Works; Ethics; Finance; Foreign Relations; Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs; Indian Affairs; Intelligence; the Judiciary; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Rules and Administration; Small Business and Entrepreneurship; and Veterans' Affairs.  

The House on the other hand has committees on: Agriculture; Appropriations; Armed Services; Budget; Energy and Commerce; Education and the Workforce; Financial Services; Government Reform; Homeland Security; House Administration; Intelligence; International Relations; the Judiciary; Resources; Rules; Science; Small Business; Standards of Official Conduct; Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans' Affairs; and Ways and Means. 

The subcommittee structures vary potentially even more. Look at how the House and Senate manage the Homeland Security front. The House Committee on Homeland Security has six subcommittees, to name:  1) Economic Security Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity, 2) Emergency Preparedness Science and Technology, 3) Intelligence Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment,  4) Investigations, 5) Integration and Oversight, and  6) Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attack.  

The Senate, on the other hand, has only three subcommittees in its Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs. They are: 1) Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 2) Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia and 3) Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security.  

And yet every piece of legislation must be the product of draft bills produced by both chambers of Congress and eventually reconciled in joint review in House-Senate Conference Committees. Only then is a piece of legislation ready to be presented to the President for signing and enactment.  

The general public doesn’t understand well the legislative process. The committees and subcommittees of Congress is where the real blocking and tackling gets done, the word by word construction that eventually creates the statute – the law of the land. At this point of draft and debate every word counts hence this is when the special-interests – read: lobbyists – try to influence the legislation. And lobbyists are not just business or labor, everyone has an interest. Academia is very involved in presenting their points of view on government research, immigration and the like. The counties are also strongly involved in lobbying since so much of their futures depends on how legislation is drafted on topics as diverse as social services, the environment, transportation or criminal justice. Furthermore, every Federal agency also has a lobbying arm, though they don’t technically do lobbying. It is usually a Congressional relations office with responsibility for addressing every request or query coming from Capitol Hill and ensuring that the agency’s points of view are well understood by the right members of Congress and their influential staffers.  

Congressional committees and subcommittees are the battlefields where the public policy wars are fought for real, since it is Congress that eventually decides what is going to be funded and what is not. That’s why committee and subcommittee assignments are so important and why control of Congress matters. It is the majority party that assigns the leadership of each committee and subcommittee and hence is able to set the agenda and control the processes. These are the plum jobs that legislators covet since those who win seats on the truly powerful committees dealing with banking, taxes or trade are usually able to substantially grow future campaign contributions.  

And that brings us back full circle to business intelligence. For all the shenanigans that our parlamentarians are supposed to engage in while producing legislation, it is nonetheless true that a case has to be made for any law to pass in Congress. There have to be arguments that explain why a statute is needed, specific instructions must be provided to the Executive Branch in order to guide administration and enforcement, details have to be provided vis-à-vis intent. (This is why there is so much concern about so-called “earmarks” or pork, because they are seen as attempts to include provisions in a law without the necessary justification.) And throughout this whole process, it is data that fuels the debate and is used as the ammunition with which the war over priorities and levels of funding is fought. Data must be presented to establish positions. Data is used to document, justify, clarify and explain the reason for the legislation and then to quantify the level of funding that will be needed to implement the programmatic activity mandated by the law. How can you pass legislation agreeing to pay for pharmaceuticals for seniors without having the needed business intelligence? Congress will need answers to questions such as: How many senior citizens? How much consumption of drugs? What types of drugs? What is their cost? How and where will they be dispensed? And much, much more. This is why the Census asks so many different questions of us all, and why the Federal government conducts so many research studies and surveys: establishing the rate of inflation, tracking the price of oil, maintaining the stability of prices of specific agricultural products, following traffic accidents nationwide, conducting assessments of educational achievement, and on, and on, and on.  

The Legislative Branch – The Congress – is entrusted with establishing the rules. It takes a significant amount of business intelligence to do it right.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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