By Bernie Becker - 09/27/11 12:43 AM EDT
Lawmakers are increasingly using taxpayer funds to buy their congressional staff iPads, the Apple-made electronic tablets that cost hundreds of dollars apiece.
Paying for iPads in addition to computers and smartphones might seem at first glance like an unnecessary expense, but staffers insist their new tablets are actually a budget saver.
Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says the Washington Democrat saw iPads as a simple step toward getting rid of the “mountains of paper” that are often seen at congressional hearings.
“Members of the committee have not missed a beat, and the savings grow with each new hearing that’s held,” McAlvanah added.
To be sure, iPads aren’t being used by every staffer or lawmaker in the Capitol complex. (For instance, some House Appropriations staffers have received a tablet, while Senate Appropriations has not issued any to its staff.)
But officials believe that printing costs on Capitol Hill will inevitably get smaller and smaller as technology improves, and some lawmakers have introduced measures taking aim at reducing what they say are unnecessary printing costs.
And with President Obama and House Republicans battling over the need to invest in areas like education and infrastructure, officials from both parties on Capitol Hill are interested in at least examining what iPads can bring to the table.
At the start of the year, for example, the House changed its rules to specify that iPads and similar instruments could be used on the chamber floor, unlike mobile phones and laptop computers.
That change has helped staffers on House Appropriations, who have spent long hours on the floor and in the committee room as Republicans and Democrats hammer out measures to fund the government.
A House Appropriations staffer said committee aides from both parties received iPads this year, after the GOP took control of the House. With the tablets, staffers on the floor can access documents that might otherwise be stuck back in the office.
“When it’s 1 a.m., you’re on the floor and you need a spreadsheet that’s on your computer in Rayburn, the iPad comes in pretty handy,” the staffer said.
Republicans on the panel had asked for tablets while they were in the minority, the staffer added, but Democrats refused the request.
The House Rules Committee, meanwhile, has started looking for ways to make House manuals and rules pamphlets easier to read on electronic tablets. But Jo Maney, a spokeswoman for the committee, told The Hill in an email that only a limited number of panel aides have received an iPad.
“We are experimenting with them and have not deployed them widely,” Maney said.
House staffers said it’s probably too early to tell what sorts of expenses or savings have been caused by more iPads. But McAlvanah says the tablets have been a clear cost-saver at his committee.
In all, McAlvanah said, the 21 tablets purchased for lawmakers and staff cost roughly $8,900. But, as Greenwire first reported over the summer, the committee was able to offset that cost by completing a computer systems upgrade internally.
The committee also says it started saving hundreds of dollars a month, and roughly $4,000 in all, on printer toner and paper since the iPads were purchased in late February, McAlvanah said.
Staffers also noted that the iPads were formatted to allow aides to email from their work accounts, alleviating concerns over possible archiving problems.
Gary Somerset, a spokesman for the Government Printing Office, said he expects congressional printing requests to continue decreasing, as they have since the office started putting documents online more than 15 years ago.
William Boarman, the public printer, has signaled in congressional testimony this year that he expects printing to be an increasingly complementary component of his agency’s work, noting that most of the agency’s printing and binding requests now go toward managing congressional databases.
“Our present and future are clearly being defined by digital technology, and digital technology itself has radically changed the way printing is performed today,” Boarman said.