By Kim Hart and J. Taylor Rushing - 04/29/10 10:00 AM EDT
The oldest Congress ever is getting more hip to today’s technology.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), while recovering from foot surgery, kept in touch with staff and the governor of Maryland with her BlackBerry.
The average age of House members at the start of the 111th Congress was 57 years old — 63 in the Senate — making it the grayest on record.
But many grandmothers and grandfathers on Capitol Hill are adept with BlackBerrys, Facebook, Twitter and other popular modes of electronic communication.
Lawmakers say they use their smartphones for nearly every part of their daily routines — maintaining calendars, finding driving directions and keeping tabs on their employees.
Congress wasn’t always so up on technology. Four years ago, then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) famously described the Internet as a “series of tubes.”
For many members, their BlackBerrys allow them to stay in touch even when they’re out of reach.
Mikulski, for example, remained quite productive when her foot was on the mend.
“It was absolutely crucial, because I was out of commission but still in touch,” she said. “Ben Cardin and I e-mailed each other every day in terms of the Senate and what we should do. The governor would e-mail me about every third day, so we could be in touch with the state.”
In many ways it was easier than using a laptop.
“It kept the notes shorter. Instead of a long, complicated e-mail with memos, we got right to the point,” she said. “So this was my tool to stay on active duty.”
Members are not allowed to use their BlackBerrys on the Senate or House floors, but many senators routinely disregard the rule.
“You’re not supposed to, but yeah,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a possible 2012 presidential candidate. “As long as you don’t get busted.”
President Barack Obama, the first president to carry a BlackBerry, says he uses it to read prayers every morning. During the Olympics, he checked the phone every hour for the latest results.
Some senators said they use their BlackBerry during meetings or hearings, to surf the Web or keep in touch with their aides.
“I’ve used it sometimes to answer questions at the hearings,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). “Once there was some historical figure — I can’t remember who — and a question came up about his age, and I thought he [the speaker] was wrong. So I surfed the Web and found out he was making a mistake and corrected him.”
Not every lawmaker sees the appeal of BlackBerrys.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) doesn’t own one.
“What’s the use, when everyone around me has one?” he said. “If I need to find something out, I’ll ask one of them.”
“And frankly, in terms of reading the news, which is what I think people are looking at most, I’d rather use the Kindle.”
Levin said he saw Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) using an Amazon Kindle recently and subsequently acquired one. Pryor’s Kindle is loaded with the usual news links, press clips and standard links that came with the machine, including the collected poems of Edgar Allan Poe.
Pryor hasn’t eschewed the use of a BlackBerry. He proudly displays the Arizona Razorbacks logo as his wallpaper.
But he agrees they can be distracting, so he limits himself to only a few uses.
“I do basically three things with it: my calendar, so I know where I’m supposed to be. My e-mail, so I can communicate with the office. And then I use the phone. I very seldom use the camera or the Internet,” Pryor said.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said he hasn’t gotten the chance to use features other than basic calendar and e-mail.
“I’d like to figure out the camera,” he said. “I accidentally open it up all the time, but I’ve never taken the time to learn how to make use of it.”
When Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) got stranded in a malfunctioning Senate subway car on his way to preside over the floor, he had to get creative to get a signal. His legislative aides couldn’t get wireless service underground, but he managed to eke out a text message to people on the floor.
“I couldn’t get off … but I always remembered something about these phones and their text-message abilities, so I put it next to the train’s metal rail, using it as an antenna, and somehow got a message out,” he said. “Worked like a charm. I’ve done that on elevators too. I’ve been talking to someone, then pop it onto speaker, then set it against the wall, and more than likely I can keep the connection.”
A number of staffers say they get e-mails at all hours of the night, thanks to their bosses’ BlackBerry addictions.
Sixty-eight-year-old Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), for example, often spends early-morning hours sending e-mails, memos and other ideas to his staff when he can’t sleep.
Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) prefers to use his iPhone to send notes to staff and jot down reminders for himself during hearings or while walking back and forth to his office and between votes.
“I use it as kind of a filing cabinet for random notes,” he said. “You know, like good restaurants I want to remember.”
Boucher said he’s on the verge of upgrading to a 3G iPhone, but hasn’t had the chance to swing by the Apple store.
“I use the camera a lot. It’s got a great application where you can take a picture and e-mail it off as an attachment with text really easily,” he said. “I’m able to use the touch screen to type very effectively. The software is very smart, so it corrects me about 90 percent of the time. In a typical e-mail I only have to go back and correct one or two errors.”
Despite D.C. laws barring the use of hand-held cell phones on the road, senators from nearby states such as Mikulski and Cardin said they even use their BlackBerrys to help navigate traffic during their commutes to and from Washington.
“It seems like it’s updated every 20 minutes,” said Cardin. “It is very valuable, and it saves me a lot of time. I even use the alarm clock feature when I’m out of town, because it glows at night. There’s a lot of features on this thing. My calendar’s even updated every minute, so I never have to carry paper. It’s a very valuable part of my life.”