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The tech world rejoices: A Congressman who can code

In what appears to be a first, the US House of Representatives now has a Congressman who can code. That's right, a geek Congressman.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
3 min read

In what appears to be a first, the US House of Representatives now has a Congressman who can code...in assembly. That's right, a Congressman with geek skills.

Democratic Representative Bill Foster won a special election this past Saturday in the 14th Congressional District of Illinois. This was the district that former Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert held from 1986-2007. Hastert stepped down in November of 2007.

Congressman Bill Foster

Foster, a physicist with a Ph.D. from Harvard, surprised many when he won the district. After all, it had been a Republican stronghold for more than twenty years. After being sworn in on Tuesday, Foster has already made his mark, by providing the single vote needed to pass a significant ethics reform bill.

More surprising than the fact that Foster won in a heavily Republican district, more than his public position against telecom immunity, is the fact that Bill Foster is a computer geek.

According to a February article in the Chicago Tribune, Bill Foster has got coding skills:

The Democrat, Bill Foster of Geneva, is a get-out-the-vote geek. He's a knock-on-doors nerd who wrote the software program credited with propelling Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy to a narrow victory in 2006 ... "It was pretty remarkable," said Nat Binns, a spokesman for Murphy's campaign. "He dropped in from nowhere and approached the get-out-the-vote effort as a scientific puzzle.

"He helped us crack the code and figure out where we needed to go and how to do it really efficiently," Binns said. "It was brilliant. We were able to knock on 140,000 doors on Election Day, which was a big part of why we won (by just 1,518 votes)."

Foster's unofficial title was "campaign physicist."

Foster worked as a researcher at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) for 22 years. One of his main projects involved the design of equipment and data analysis software for the lab's high energy particle collision detector.

Given Foster's background, his experience in software development, and the research environment in which he worked, it's almost certain that he worked on Unix systems at some point, too.

I spoke with Tom Bowen, Congressman Foster's campaign manager, who confirmed that the Representative does indeed have programming skills. He told me that Congressman Foster has written code in assembly, Fortran, and Visual Basic. Mr. Bowen also added that during one project, Foster designed integrated circuits that were later used in Fermilab's particle accelerator.

As for the Congressman's laptop? He owns a Dell that runs Windows. Oh, well. He can't be perfect.

What this actually means to tech policy remains unclear. Computer programming skills do not automatically lead to sound logic or wise positions on important issues. A quick read through Slashdot user comments easily demonstrates this. However, it's likely that someone who has actually used a computer for scientific research will better understand the complex issues at play. At the very least, we're not likely to see a Ted Stevens style "Series of Tubes" moment from Congressman Foster.

With any luck, Foster will be assigned to tech and science relevant committees. Top picks would include the the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, as well as the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet which is chaired by Net Neutrality cheerleader Edward Markey.

We at Surveillance State predict Foster can expect massive love from the Digg/Slashdot crowd. Furthermore, while many politicians get invited to talk at Google, it's likely that Foster could actually correctly answer a few of the company's notoriously difficult interview questions.

Hat tip: Adam B at DailyKos for first pointing out Foster's tech credentials.