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Congress mulls laptops in sessions

The Senate is now debating whether protocol should be broken in order to make room for technological tools in legislative chambers.

The tapping of typists on computer keyboards is by now a familiar sound in the hallowed halls of Congress. In most cases, it comes from House and Senate staffers banging out speeches, drafts of bills, or emails to alert legislators and lobbyists of upcoming hearings.

The nation's elected officials, however, aren't known for their word processing and Net surfing skills. There are the cyber-savvy members of the Internet Caucus, whose leaders--Rep. Rick White (R-Washington) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)--give Net demonstrations to colleagues on the Hill or hold weekly online town hall meetings with constituents. The sophomore representative and veteran senator have managed to show off their high-tech skills without making their paper-dependent counterparts feel outdated.

But a recent request from Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) to lug his laptop into the Senate chamber, instead of a briefcase, is shaking up the time-honored traditions of 100-member body and bringing to light some politicians' fear of mice and monitors. Congress is now debating whether protocol should be broken in order to make room for technological tools.

Unlike his peers, Enzi is dependent on his laptop, which he said he used during his four years as a Wyoming state senator. He's not asking to go online from chambers, just for permission to power up his digital filing cabinet.

"My computer--with a 1.3GB hard drive--contains several briefcases of information, and it makes what I need out of all that information available to me at a moment's notice," Enzi wrote in a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who has strong reservations about allowing portable computers in chambers.

"When taking notes to keep track of the points I need to make or counter, I type much faster than I write and it is still legible to me later," he continued. "I will just be using the tool that I'm used to using to represent my constituents to the best of my ability."

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is expected to hold hearings on the issue in the next few months. During a hearing in July, members already had firm opinions.

The Senate's sergeant at arms, Gregory Casey, who studied the issue for three months, told the committee that the use of laptops does not violate current rules unless they are networked to computers outside of the chambers. The thought of lobbyists emailing senators on the floor or representatives taking online public opinion polls moments before voting has put to rest the possibility of live Net connections. Instead, the debate seems to center around customs and tradition.

"I genuinely believe that there is a quality to the Senate that is dependent upon the exchange of thoughts, the mix of personalities and experiences, that could be easily lost," Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) said at the July hearing.

Torricelli's engagement with the technology makes him sound like a Silicon Valley executive--he works using a laptop while on airplanes and surfs the Net at home in the evening. Still, Torricelli said he is opposed to computers in chambers.

"We live in a time when the American people have come to expect all the sincerity from a presidential address that a TelePrompTer can offer," he told fellow senators at the hearing. "I would like the Senate to remain different."

Senators who identify less with the digital age were also reluctant, albeit sympathetic, about laptops in the Senate. "I, for one, would prefer not to have them, but I am getting older and a lot of younger people are coming on, and they like the computer. They want to use laptops," Rep. Wendell Ford (D-Kentucky) stated at the hearing.

Ford accepted that many use a computer like he uses a notepad. Still, he pushed for another hearing on the issue, "I am not trying to be an old fogy here, but I am also trying to see the advancement."

Even though they pass legislation that affects the information technology, software, and computer industries, Senate and House members' workdays have remained virtually unaltered by personal computers, according to observers inside the Beltway.

"There are members who still use manual typewriters," said Jonah Seiger, cofounder of democracy.net, which Webcasts hearings and other policy-shaping events.

Members often don't use computers during the legislative process, either. Although services such as Thomas let citizens follow bills online, Congress still relies on hard-copy documents for introducing and revising piles of legislation each year.

"As far as creating, editing, and collaborating to build documents online, that is still very paper-intensive at that part of the process. But we are seeing hearing schedules online, copies of introduced bills, and, of course, political propaganda," said Tom Temin, editor in chief of Government Computer News, which tracks federal, state, and local governments' use of technology.

More than 3 million computers have been deployed in the federal workforce as of this year, Temin added. But compared to Congress, localities and states are the early adopters. More than two-thirds of state legislatures are online, with members in both chambers furnished with laptops or PCs.

"States are more retail, meaning most elected officials represent small populations and are much more responsive to the need for openness and change," he noted. "In Congress, the use of computers and other automated technology calls for a change in culture. The Senate is the single most traditional body in existence, which is why it is slowing [Enzi] from bringing his laptop on the floor."

The California state Senate spent more than $1 million on laptops to be used in chambers. The laptops plug into the Senate's intranet, so during debates bills and amendments pop up on members' screens, for example. The state Assembly uses a similar system.

Conflicts have arisen over the dependability of the two-year-old California system. The expensive project has hit personality snags, too.

"Some of the older Senate members think they are unreliable and prefer the pieces of paper that pile up on their desks," said Sandy Harrison, press secretary for Democratic Sen. Bill Lockyer, the California state Senate's president pro tempore since 1994.

Lockyer led the charge to equip the state's 40 senators with the devices. Harrison said only 10 members are really "gung-ho" about using the devices, but that participation is improving.

As far as Congress's debate over maintaining tradition in the digital age, he added: "I don't think the opposing arguments have much validity. It's like saying the light bulb took away the traditional value of kerosene."

Nevertheless, advocates of digitizing government can appreciate the value of tradition. Seiger says that U.S. lawmaking is designed to be deliberative. "Congress should want to be careful to see how this can impact our democratic system, which for better or for worse, has worked pretty well for 220 years."