Lawmakers say House must move more quickly to embrace new technology

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House rules must change more swiftly if the chamber is to benefit from advances in technology, lawmakers tell The Hill.

Though the iPad has become a common sight in the halls of the Capitol, Congress has a way to go before shedding its reputation as a digital backwater, the lawmakers said.

“The fact that this is a place that is laden with tradition is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have the application of new technology that is consistent with the rules we have,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Administration Committee.

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“One of the things I’m trying to do on House Administration is to make sure that we are more receptive to technology change,” Lungren said.

One big shift for the House this year has been the ability to use iPads on the House floor, but their continued use hinges on a pending review by the House parliamentarian.

According to Lungren — who was carrying an iPad when he spoke with The Hill — House rules must move more swiftly to benefit from technology.

“My purpose is to try and speed up our application of the principles of the rules to new technology,” he said. “Time to accelerate that so that we’re able to adapt more quickly than we have been before."

Rules dictating the use of electronic devices on the House floor are readopted every two years. The House first adopted a rule prohibiting the use of personal electronic office equipment — including cellular phones and computers — on the floor in 1995 to ensure against disruptions and distractions.

That was later amended in 2003 to allow the use of smartphones. In January, the rules were changed again to prohibit the use of any mobile electronic device that is disruptive of decorum.

This change allows the Speaker of the House greater latitude in determining which mobile devices may or may not be used by members.

The House Administration Committee is reaching out to members of Congress and the private sector to learn how to better modernize information delivery in the House as Congress experiences growing pains in adopting new technology.

In a hearing earlier this week of the Subcommittee on Oversight, Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) testified that some federal publications, including the daily congressional calendar, could be digitized to save money.

The hearing was the most recent exploration into cost-cutting and streamlining House operations, which has become a hot topic on Capitol Hill as lawmakers increasingly turn to smartphones and tablets during their daily business.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), Lungren’s colleague on the House technology working group, said one reason the House is slow to change is its members, who in many cases are reluctant to take on new technologies.

“We still have a lot of members who, generationally, maybe haven’t totally embraced the technology,” he said, offering the example of an unnamed member’s staff being allocated just one BlackBerry last year for an entire office.

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“Rather than trying to thrust technology upon some of the late adopters, I think the House will be dragged into it by newer members who insist on using the technology,” he added.

Chaffetz, also an iPad fan, has seen such devices' increased use on the House floor and in hearing rooms. But wireless Internet availability is still an impediment in widespread usage of tablet PCs, something the technology working group is focusing on fixing.

“We still have to get wireless more prominently available throughout the maze that is the House,” Chaffetz said. “There’s a lot of cement around here, so it’s difficult to get reception sometimes.”

As rules and operability change, the demand for and use of technology by lawmakers is increasing.

On Wednesday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) announced the release of an official mobile application for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, the first application to be offered by a U.S. senator.

“Constituents can find in real time Sen. Chambliss’s position on hot topics of the day, and can easily access Sen. Chambliss’s contact information, news articles, e-newsletters, videos and photos,” according to a press release.

“That’s the future,” said William Boarman, public printer of the United States.

“I see the day when every member of the House and Senate will be carrying some kind of an iPad, and where they can sit on the floor or any hearing and they can actually page through a document,” he added. “We just have to continue to be prepared for, I think, a paperless society. Congress is not ready for it yet, but someday they’ll get there.”