Linux for Congress

by Alan McConnell

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 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 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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