Cool to technology

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has been on the forefront of handling the nation’s housing crisis, but when it comes to gadgets, the 68-year-old says mastering technology does not necessarily lead to a more productive career.

Standing off the House floor before the August recess, the chairman of the Financial Services Committee whipped open his sports jacket, looked down at his waist and proudly declared himself “BlackBerry-less.”

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), 71, apparently feels the same way. He, too, lived up to the older-lawmaker stereotype when he admitted to Yahoo! News that he does not use a computer. “I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance I can get,” McCain said, referring to spouse Cindy McCain.

The McCain campaign declined to comment on whether the senator has improved his computer skills.

But Frank and McCain are in the minority as more and more lawmakers embrace the ever-evolving technology at their fingertips.

Take Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). At 52, he is venturing into uncharted territory as he shows it’s not just younger members who are adept at adopting new technology.

The self-proclaimed “real-time representative” has started “Twittering” — an Internet service that allows subscribers to get instant updates from the user — in an attempt to keep constituents better informed of the House’s proceedings.

Culberson has also been video-blogging on Qik.com as he interviews scientists about the Mars Rover project and wanders throughout the Capitol Rotunda.

“Three weeks [and] I am doing it all myself,” Culberson boasted. “The staff is not doing it.”
Culberson is not alone, though.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), 35, is sticking up for the young whippersnappers on the Hill. He gave Culberson a run for his money when the two traded “tweets” from the House floor on the subject of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“It’s a friendly debate,” Culberson said. “I get along with everyone in the House and Tim and I are on friendly terms. We just moved the debate from the floor to the Internet.”

The virtual sparring match speaks to the larger picture of the nearly 50 years separating the oldest lawmaker from the youngest in Congress.

Technology often comes easier for younger members as they are more familiar with basic concepts, such as e-mailing, uploading and text messaging.

BlackBerry usage in Congress went up 14 percent from 2006 to 2007, with 7,876 BlackBerrys in use in the House alone, according to the Chief Administrative Office.

Members aren’t making strange threats when they utter phrases like “I’ll ’Berry you” or “ ’Berry me.” They’re planning electronic communications. Younger members, like Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), 34, appear to be more adept at rolling with the changing times.

“I’ve got two BlackBerrys, an iPod Video, a cell phone, a laptop,” Putnam said, checking off his tech list. “Let’s see, what other electronic devices do I have to charge up at the end of the day?”

Putnam argues that while he may not be the most technologically savvy person in the world, his know-how has made him and others more industrious.

“I think I’m technologically savvy by Congress’s standards but not by the standards of the rest of the world,” Putnam said. “I think it’s made us more productive, just like it has in the rest of society.”

Another BlackBerry-less lawmaker, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), 77, looks at younger members like Putnam and sees their technological knowledge as a sign of the times.

“I’m not technologically savvy,” Coble said. “I think it’s maybe a generational thing. I think most guys my age are not into technology so prominently.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), 79, shed some of the stigma that comes with being an older member when she learned to use a BlackBerry and then became interested in e-mailing with constituents.

More than 65 percent of people who contact lawmakers on the Hill do so by e-mail, according to the most recent report by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group that studies congressional communications.

Slaughter admits there is a generation gap when it comes to adapting to technology. But the gap is not between the 30-somethings and the 70-somethings, she said. When she spends time with her grandchildren is when she most feels the ache in her technological bones.

“I swear, for young people it’s just like breathing for them,” she said. “One of my grandsons has been working on a computer since he was 2 years old.”

Members, she said, try to stay current.

“I think most of the members here keep up on the Internet and with technology,” Slaughter said.

When Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) celebrated his 60th birthday, he wished for a new iPod, saying he relies on his staff to keep him on technology’s edge.

“I’d hate to use the word ‘savvy,’ but I try to keep up,” Conaway said. “I’ve got a few guys on staff that help me with the blogging and podcasting. And our website’s really very good. So I’ve got good people on staff to help with that issue.”

Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), 45, was in the first class of House lawmakers to receive a BlackBerry in 2001 and has taken to carrying two, but admits there are lines in his tech-savvy he won’t cross.

“I don’t wear the ‘Star Wars’ earpiece or that kind of thing,” he said. “There are limits to my nerdiness, and that crosses the line.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), 68, dislikes such a stereotype and, eager to shatter it, he recently whipped out his BlackBerry and began to scroll through pictures of his grandchildren that he had e-mailed himself.

“I’ve always been comfortable with it,” said Leahy of technology.

“We’ve got this 1850s farmhouse in Vermont and it’s completely high-tech, with high-speed Internet and everything,” said the six-term senator.

As he and his wife boarded an elevator in the Russell Senate Office Building, she said she wondered if his technological appetite would ever be satisfied.

“What I’d really like is the Nikon D300,” said Leahy, referring to the $1,800 digital camera.

Other members, like Coble and Frank, are perfectly content to remain on the fringes of technology.

The BlackBerry-less Coble suspects that his comfort may not remain for long. “I’d like to be able to keep it this way, but I may not be able to,” he said.

Frank said he begrudgingly became part of the cell phone community, but decided not to give out his number to many people. He said he has received more than a few astounded looks when he breaks the news to people.

“People say to me, ‘Well, how do we reach you in an emergency?’ ” Frank said. “I tell them, ‘Look, I don’t know CPR and I can’t bail you out of jail — what do you need me for in an emergency? I can’t do anything for you.’ ”