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Senate nixes laptops on floor

The Rules Committee says members' notepads on the floor may not include disk drives and keyboards.

The Senate Rules Committee said today that members' notepads on the floor may not include disk drives and keyboards.

Despite pleas from freshman Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) to have the right to tote his laptop into chambers, those who pass the laws of conduct for the Senate shot him down on grounds that sacred traditions supersede the value of digital briefcases.

"I don't want to appear to be standing in the way of progress and technology. This committee will continue to wrestle with the trade-offs of allowing members to take advantage of new technologies while preserving the history and decorum of the Senate chamber," Sen. Wendell Ford (D- Kentucky) said during committee hearings on the issue last Thursday.

"It appears that this request is a little ahead of its time," he added. Ford voted against allowing members' use of laptops on the floor.

The committee's vote is the final word on the issue for now, but another political body deeply rooted in custom, the British Cabinet, also is considering the use of laptops. The cabinet seems more receptive to the idea, but its decision won't help Enzi. (See related story)

Enzi insists he wasn't out to "destroy the Senate" when he made the request this summer but simply wants to use the tools that help him better serve his constituency. An accountant by trade, he used a laptop during sessions when he was a Wyoming state senator.

"The laptop was a necessary tool for me, since you do not have any staff in Wyoming. I found I could take notes and write speeches, and during debate I could write down the issues that I need to respond to. I could look up documents that support that and be sure I had the facts right," Enzi said in a past interview.

Members of the rules committee were unmoved by his explanations. Some argued that allowing laptops, even those disconnected from outside networks, would take away the spontaneity of statements made on the floor.

"If we are going into high-tech, we could also have electronic voting devices," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) during a committee hearing in July. "There are a lot of things we could do, but I do think the traditions of the Senate are important, and I would not want to go to electronic voting devices...[or] have people reading from computers or appearing to type on the floor, either."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) agreed, and rejected Enzi's proposal. "Most people wouldn't allow their sons or daughters to bring their laptops to the dinner table. The Senate floor is reserved for discussion between senators and for votes," her spokesman, Jim Hock, said today. "If a member wants to use a laptop, they can bring it to the cloak room directly off the floor."

After a heated debate last week, Enzi's staff was sure the fate of laptops on the floor already was sealed. Still, as someone who cherishes the traditions of the Senate, Enzi contends that in this case, technology is not a threat to customs.

"I am relatively certain that if you stay there late at night and it is really quiet, you can still hear the debates from the past century that have gone on there," he said. "The floor is really steeped in tradition. But I don't think that a laptop computer I use to take notes is going to destroy the Senate any more than the switch from quill pens to ballpoints."