Linux for Congress

Linux-PE's mission is to get Linux enabled for Congress--next: your local library!

Linux should be used more in governments, right? With no Microsoft tax being required and many fewer viruses, the taxpayers would be saved some money and the government would run more efficiently. Do I dare mention the possibility that Linux people might be hired in greater numbers?

Well, this is what a bunch of us in Maryland thought. Our goal--no one has accused us of thinking small--was to make Congress use Linux. Our reasoning was Congress, our second branch of government, can't very well take steps to encourage open source and free software in the Executive branch until Congress itself uses such software.

Certainly, no law exists to stop any representative from installing Linux on any computer at her/his disposal. But in order to be effective, Linux has to be able to get to and receive material from the outside world. As is natural, Congress has a connecting layer of software that is run and maintained by the House Information Resources (HIR). HIR enables congressional offices to communicate safely with their constituents, with each other and with the rest of government. The client software used by the offices themselves runs mainly on Microsoft but also on Macintosh machines. It doesn't run on Linux.

So we started a campaign to port the HIR client software to Linux.

Our Congressman is Chris Van Hollen, of the Eighth District of Maryland. He is intelligent and energetic. Unfortunately, he and his staff, like most congresspeople, are not very IT-savvy, a fact they readily admit. Also, Mr. Van Hollen is a new member of Congress and is cautious; his staff is quite protective of him.

,So it took a lot of e-mail, visits to his staff and one short meeting with the Congressman to achieve the following result: Mr. Van Hollen has agreed to send our suggestion that the HIR software be ported to Linux on to the Committee on House Administration (CHA), the Committee with jurisdiction over HIR.

"Well, whoop-de-do", some of you may be thinking. You're right, it is a small step. But often, small steps are how progress is made. And, unless I am mistaken, this is the first time any US Representative has taken the slightest step to benefit Linux, free software or the Open Source community.

How can we build on this beginning? I have a few suggestions:

  1. We should let Mr. Van Hollen know that we approve of his taking the action he said he would.

  2. We should urge our own congresspeople to get behind Mr. Van Hollen's initiative.

  3. We should get in touch with the members of the CHA to urge them to direct HIR.

How do you get in touch with representatives? If you wish to send e-mail, they have e-addresses, but each representative receives many thousands of e-mails per day. Far better is to find a particular staffer in the relevant office and send your e-mail to him or her. For instance, if any of you wish to take up my suggestion to send an approving message to Congressman Van Hollen, the best way to do it is to send an e-mail to phil.alperson@mail.house.gov. Phil Alperson is a senior staffer for Van Hollen who defends his boss like a tiger, but he also has been appointed as the intermediary on this issue. Write a note to Alperson at the above address asking him to pass a message on to Mr. Van Hollen, something like, "We congratulate you on pursuing the initiative of giving more choice to Congress about the software Representatives are able to run" certainly is enough.

I know it goes against the grain to write anything favorable to a Congressman. Everyone feels this way, hence compliments reaching someone--in this case, Van Hollen--who actually is doing something good can have extra weight.

Capitol Hill is a local phone call for me. I probably can help you find an appropriate staffer for your congressman, to whom you can send your message.

Finally, at the beginning of this article I wrote that Linux should be used more in governments. We have talked about Congress here, but Linux could be employed in many other government branches and offices: libraries, fire and police departments, tax offices, motor vehicle administrations and so on. If you have ideas, energy, expertise and/or connections or if you simply like the idea of helping others who do, please join the e-list our group has set up, Linux-Public Education (Linux-PE). It is intended not merely as a discussion list but also as a meeting place for Linux activists who wish to organize to get their favorite OS into governments. To join this E-list, go to www.tux.org/mailman/listinfo/linux-pe and follow the steps listed there. Linux-PE also has a Web site where you can find more information. Please join us!

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Members - Committee on House Administration

Anonymous's picture

The members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on House Administration include:

http://www.house.gov/cha/nmembers1.htm

Republican Members
Rep. Robert W. Ney, (R-OH) Chairman
Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, (R-MI)
Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL)
Rep. John Linder (R-GA)
Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-CA)
Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-NY)

Democratic Members
Rep. John B. Larson (D-CT) Ranking Member
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA) (LA, Long Beach, Torrance, Compton, Carson, Lynwood)
Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA)

If one of these are your representative, please contact your representative directly at (202) 224-3121, ask for your Representative's Chief of Staff. Inform the Chief of Staff of the Van Hollen proposal, and see if the Representative will investigate the proposal.

Re: Linux for Congress

Anonymous's picture

I am grateful for the comments already posted. And I
very much hope that this discussion can be continued
on the E-list linux-pe; the article shows how to join.
It is on linux-pe that Linuxers can not only effectively
support us Marylanders and our campaign to get the
House of Representatives "Linux-enabled", but, more
importantly, organize your own campaign to get Linux
into the local or state governments where you have
influence. Join us!
Best wishes, Alan McConnell(alan@patriot.net)

Re: Linux for Congress

Anonymous's picture

I'm not sure how the software you referenced was developed, but if it was contracted for with Tax payer dollars doesn't that mean it and it's source are available through the Freedom of Information Act.

You may want to pursue get the source and making it available to the open source community. That might speed your efforts.

Re: Linux for Congress

Anonymous's picture

This will never happen. Basically what you are saying is, "Put Microsoft out of business." The Republican Government will never turn to Linux. They back large corporations and will never pass a law that will endanger the economy. If Linux based OSes were put in Congress, the White House and other Government ran facilities, Microsoft would loose HUGE amounts of business. The public schools of America alone provide billions of dollars to Microsoft. Bill Gates has too much influence on the Republicans for any of this to happen. However, if Democrats were in charge it might be a different story.

---- Professor X

Re: Linux for Congress

Anonymous's picture

Linux was devoloped over time by amny people throughout the world and it is still being developed (which isnt to say its not ready) It is opensource so congress would have the benefit of being able to screen it for hidden bugs and trackers, they cant do this with a commercial software such as windows, though it would be foolish for a big company to mess with the government, windows' source code is not available to the pblic as microsoft distributes (sells) its products as executable files and encrypts the source (Im sure some hackers could break it but they wouldn't want to as there happy with linux) I highly doubt that MS will go open-source any time soon as it would kill the monop..er...buisness

Re: Linux for Congress

Anonymous's picture

The last time I checked, although it would appear that software MAY come under the FoA, due to the nature of the program and sensitivity of some of the information created, the software may not be available through FoA; especially since it was probably an outsource contract.

As for the other reply - the swiftness of the response to the backdoor attempt would tell me that with the proper controls (evidenced by same attempt), CVS is an excellent means of keeping the source from being backdoored.

I would rather see these kind of public notifications rather than rely on proprietary (closed) source solutions (think MS and others) where backdoors have been either introduced or intentionally designed into the program, and not found for years if at all.

- Ken Roberts, So. Cal. resident

Re: Linux for Congress

Anonymous's picture

Making this software Open Source might make things speedier, but some vigilant and clueful person would still need to administer the secure repository that Congress would need to build from.

The recent failed attempt to backdoor the Linux kernel suggests that CVS would not be suitable either.

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