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Congress / CONGRESS

House Lawmakers to Bring More Gadgets Onto the Floor

Your iPad, or mine?

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., holds up an iPad back in May.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

photo of Major Garrett
December 27, 2010

               Lawmakers can’t smoke on Speaker-to-be John Boehner’s House floor, but in the next Congress they will be able to smoke out legislative details on the floor with the use of their iPads or BlackBerrys. If debate drags on endlessly, they can catch NBA rookie sensation Blake Griffin smoking a slow-footed defender while watching live-streamed ESPN highlights. And if they want to revel in the absurdities of Washington’s lobbying ways as they wait to give a speech or for their amendment to be called up, they can watch Thank You for Smoking on Netflix.

                All of this is possible now that House Republicans have thrown open technology’s door and proposed a change in rules that will allow for electronic devices on the House floor as long as they do not impair “decorum.” Read the full list of rule changes here and see Page 12 for the 411 on PDAs.

                Does this mean, heaven forbid, that Republicans are defining decorum down?


                They say no.

                “The goal of the rule was not to turn the customs and traditions of the House on their head,” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for the House GOP transition office. “Few have greater respect for the House as an institution than Speaker-designate Boehner. Instead, we’re looking to update antiquated rules that no longer serve the House and the people represented here.”

            Republicans defend the use of PDAs, iPads, and similar devices as a stab at efficiency and, believe it or not, as a green way to reduce congressional paper consumption.  If lawmakers are reading bills on the House floor, instead of demanding to sift through a printed version, that will cut down on printing costs and paper. Consider the case of the dearly departed omnibus appropriations bill in the lame-duck session.  That bill, running 1,926 pages, never made it to the floor of either the House or Senate for a vote because rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats recoiled at its $1.1 trillion price tag. Even so, the Government Printing Office ran off 650 copies at a reported cost of more than $78,000.

                In this regard, House Republicans compare the BlackBerry and iPad rule change to the one they instituted in 1995 to end the practice of delivering buckets of ice to each lawmaker’s office whether they asked for ice or not.

                “Just as refrigeration made ice delivery unnecessary, electronic devices like the iPad, while not eliminating paper, can certainly cut down the reams that are wasted daily around here,” Buck said. “If a member can read a bill summary or an amendment on an electronic device, perhaps in a searchable format, he or she can better represent their constituents.”

                And who could be opposed to saving paper, especially if you can watch Modern Family, or Monday Night Football, or Mister Smith Goes to Washington from your seat at the back of the House? Well, lawmakers might want to be careful what they watch and how visible they are when doing it. They don’t want to be caught like these members of the California Assembly debating the state’s budget crisis and playing solitaire at the same time. You can find the infamous photos here and here.

                The new BlackBerry and PDA rules are, in fact, a tribute to Newt Gingrich, who--one day after becoming the first Republican speaker in 40 years--placed all of the House’s legislative business on THOMAS, a website run by the Library of Congress. The electronic availability of bill text, committee reports, and the Congressional Record was designed to increase transparency and public confidence in Congress. One does not necessarily follow the other, as Gingrich discovered over time.

                Even so, all of Washington was enamored of this new technology, and when President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, he did so with the same pens that President Eisenhower used to sign the Interstate Highway Act of 1957 and with an electronic pen--making that law the first ever signed in cyberspace.

                But iPads, BlackBerrys, and similar devices present some potential problems. For example, will members be allowed to record video or audio on the House floor? What if an enterprising or tech-savvy freshman wanted to conduct simultaneous chats with constituents using the two-way video application on an iPhone4 or Droid? What if a ruckus suddenly developed on the floor and a lawmaker wanted to, you know, eavesdrop and collect the heated rhetoric for posterity (or publicity) later? Could lawmakers use their electronic devices to become ad hoc citizen-journalists?

                It doesn’t sound likely.

                “It is safe to assume [that] anything that makes noise or records will not be consistent with our rules of decorum,” Buck said.      

                But, of course, BlackBerrys and Droids and iPads and iPhones can record. That puts the power of what to record and what not to record in the hands of the individual lawmaker. That could make the House floor either a very interesting place or the dullest debating society known to humankind.

                Unless ... members use their iPads or similar devices to do away--forever--with the silly placards and charts they have hauled down to the floor for years. Perhaps, just perhaps, the days of the easel-and-placard show-and-tell speeches (which also have to be printed at taxpayer expense) will be rightly retired to the dustbin of history. In the new electronic Congress, members could hold up an iPad, run a quick video to make their point, and refer interested viewers to their website for a follow-up presentation. Well, one can dream. Right?

                There is, of course, a really boring side to all of this. Boehner wants to return the House to regular order, which means lengthy floor debate on pending bills with rules allowing for numerous amendments and discussion. That means legislative sessions could run long into the night day after day after day. In the 1980s, for example, it was not uncommon for the House to devote one or two weeks of floor time to multilayered appropriations bills or measures dealing with defense or environmental policy. What to do night after night on the House floor?

                With an iPad or similar device, a lawmaker could answer constituent mail, write speeches, draft amendments for future committee work, scan databases to fact-check another lawmaker’s floor speech, or actually read the legislation before the body. 

                "Prohibiting the use of all electronic devices on the House floor is an obstacle to efficiency," Buck said.

                Speaking of efficiency, you can bet majority Republicans are going to want superfast download speeds on the House floor. That may add yet another irritant to the fight they already intend to wage against the Federal Communications Commission's new network-neutrality regulations.

                But that’s a fight for another day. In the meantime, if iPads and BlackBerrys become commonplace on the House floor, can docking stations, baristas, and study couches be far behind?

                Talk about a “lost” Congress.



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