ELECTRONIC DEVICES IN THE HOUSE CHAMBER *November 21, 1997
A Report to the
Subcommittee on Rules & Organization of the House
On January 4, 1995, on the opening day of the 104th Congress, the House amended clause 7 of Rule XIV to add the following prohibition: "Neither shall any person be allowed to...use any personal, electronic office equipment (including cellular phones and computers) upon the floor of the House at any time." There was no discussion of this provision by the membership. However, the section-by-section analysis of the rules changes, which was printed in the Congressional Record, highlighted the purpose of the new provision.
It is the purpose of this new rule to avoid the disruptions and distractions that can be caused by the sounds emitted from such equipment. As with any disruption to the decorum of the House floor debate, it is anticipated that the Speaker could instruct the Sergeant-at-Arms to take necessary steps to restore order.1
Rules for the 105th House also contain the prohibition against the personal use of electronic equipment in the chamber.
There was bipartisan support for this rules change, which was triggered by complaints from Members about colleagues who brought their personal pagers and cellular phones to the floor. When used, these electronic units emitted a loud "chirping" noise which disturbed the decorum and proceedings in the chamber. Upon hearing the chirping noises, Members would often look around to see what was happening and thus lose their focus and concentration on the issues being discussed on the floor.
The topic of Member use of computers and other electronic equipment on the House floor is especially current. Recently, Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming requested permission to bring a laptop computer to the Senate floor. His request was submitted to the Senate Sergeant at Arms for study (under Senate regulations the Sergeant at Arms is authorized to permit mechanical devices on the floor). In July 1997, the report of the Sergeant at Arms was transmitted for review to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. On November 5, 1997, the panel turned down Senator Enzi's request to bring laptop computers on the Senate floor. 2
With the 21st century only a few years away, it is plain that a variety of profound trends (social, demographic, economic, communications, and so on) are underway. Together, they have the potential to transform the procedural, political, and policy landscape of Congress. Already there is discussion on and off Capitol Hill about the "cyber-Congress" and how the growing array of technological innovations may redefine traditional ways of conducting legislative business. In brief, the institution-transforming potential of these diverse developments is large.
Accordingly, this report has several goals. First, it will highlight briefly the introduction of certain electronic equipment (electronic voting machines and television coverage of the floor over C-SPAN) on the House floor. Today, each is an accepted part of the daily life of the chamber. Second, the report will further discuss the reasons why the House adopted its new rule and, conversely, why there might be potential benefits associated with personal computer availability on the House floor. This section (and a later one) will also make reference to computers on the floor in various state legislatures. Our next section examines several questions: What options might be employed to make computers or other electronic devices available to Members other than providing individual PCs on the floor? Should laptop computers or other electronic devices for Member use be limited exclusively to functions designed to promote the chamber's deliberative qualities? Is information technology moving so rapidly that it might soon create incentives for changing the current House rule to provide for individual computer use in the chamber? Finally, we close with a discussion of technological developments in the state legislatures.
THE HOUSE FLOOR AND ELECTRONIC DEVICESThe House floor is not a technology-free zone. There are, for example, a limited number of telephones in the chamber, over forty voting stations, electronic equipment at the respective floor managers' tables (employed to monitor the progress of votes), and computers located at the rear of the chamber connected to the voting system for use by Members. An important distinction with respect to computer use is their institutional versus individual application. The electronic devices currently in the chamber are used to support the institutional operations of the House. Rule XIV addresses an individual's personal use of electronic equipment in the chamber.
Technological change has long been part of the evolution of the House of Representatives. For instance, at least as early as 1914 there was interest expressed in the House for electronic voting. Representative Allan Walsh of New Jersey, who was an electrical engineer, introduced H. Res. 187 during the first session of the 63rd Congress to explore the advisability of electronic voting in the House. His proposal was referred to a three-person subcommittee of the Committee on Rules, which reported favorably thereon. However, the House never considered the resolution.
During hearings before the 1945 Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, the issue of recording floor votes electronically was raised by two lawmakers. 3 The 1945 Joint Committee did not recommend electronic voting, but it did propose that the House and Senate Caucus Rooms be modernized and that equipment be installed "for presentation of motion-picture or other visual displays for use in large-scale public hearings."4 Twenty years later the 1965 Joint Committee on the Organization of the Congress heard extensive testimony involving the use of electronic devices on the floor, in committee, and by the legislative support agencies. 5 Two contemporary technological changes affecting the House floor evolved from these early suggestions: electronic voting and gavel-to-gavel television coverage of chamber proceedings. Each merits a brief discussion.
Electronic Voting in the Chamber. Section 121 of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 states that "the names of Members voting or present may be recorded through the use of appropriate electronic equipment." In addition, Section 121 provides that the "contingent fund of the House of Representatives shall be available to provide the electronic equipment necessary to carry out the purpose" of this provision. This section was offered as a floor amendment by Representative Robert McClory of Illinois. "I am sure we recognize now that to adopt a modern system, a modern method, of recording our votes will enable us to save time for our multitudinous other legislative duties," declared Representative McClory. 6
Subsequently, on November 9, 1971, the House adopted H. Res. 601 authorizing the expenditure of $1.5 million from the contingent fund for purposes of improving computers for the House, including the installation of an electronic voting system. About a year later, on October 13, 1972, the House amended its rules (H. Res. 1123) to provide for the use of an electronic voting system. In the lead-up to the 1972 rules change, the Committee on House Administration (now titled House Oversight) assumed major responsibility for the development and installation of the electronic voting system. Soon after the 93rd Congress began, the Speaker advised all Members "that effective on Tuesday, January 23, 1973, the new electronic voting system will become operative."7 The system was used for the first time on that date to conduct a quorum call.
Television Broadcasting of House Proceedings. Over the years proposals to televise House floor proceedings were suggested by various lawmakers. Testimony before the 1965 Joint Committee, as mentioned above, was replete with suggestions to broadcast proceedings of the House. There was even one occasion, on January 3, 1947, when the House agreed to allow television coverage for two hours of its opening session "with pictures seen only in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York."8 For a few years it was left to committees to determine whether they wanted their hearings to be covered by television.
Several investigating panels, such as the Committee on Un-American Activities, permitted their hearings to be televised. Controversies associated with televised testimony prompted Speaker Sam Rayburn to ban the televising of House committee proceedings. On February 25, 1952, responding to a parliamentary inquiry raised by Republican Leader Joseph Martin, Mass., regarding Rayburn's authority "to call off the televising of the hearings," the Speaker said:
There is no authority, and as far as the Chair knows, there is no rule granting the privilege of television of the House of Representatives, and the Chair interprets that as applying to these committees or subcommittees, whether they meet in Washington or elsewhere.9
Enactment of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (P.L. 91-510) permitted committees, by majority vote of their members, to allow radio and television coverage of their hearings subject to committees' written rules for broadcast coverage. The 1970 Act also established a Joint Committee on Congressional Operations (later abolished) which in 1974 began a two-year study of broadcast coverage of floor proceedings. The Joint Committee recommended that the House [and Senate] experiment with live television and radio coverage of its proceedings. Based on the work of the Joint Committee, proposals were introduced in the House to permit broadcasting of House proceedings.
Within the House, the Rules Committee in 1975 created an Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Broadcasting to further explore the implications of allowing televised coverage of chamber proceedings. A year later a temporary House Commission on Information and Facilities experimented with live, closed-circuit television coverage of the chamber during periods when the House was not in session. On March 2, 1977, the Speaker "authorized a 90-day test of live television coverage of House floor proceedings...The broadcast signal was transmitted only to congressional offices in the Rayburn House Office Building and other House locations." 10
Seven months later, on October 27, 1977, the House adopted H. Res. 866, which provided for the closed circuit viewing of House floor proceedings. The Rules Committee was also directed to study possible alternatives (broadcasting by a network pool or by an in-house system, for instance) and report its recommendations to the Speaker by February 15, 1978. By an overwhelming vote of 342 to 44, the House granted approval for the unedited broadcasting of chamber proceedings and authorized the Speaker to continue and to expand the closed-circuit system then in existence.11 On March 19, 1979, the House made history when its proceedings were televised live to the general public. Rep. Albert Gore (now Vice President of the United States) was the first lawmaker to address the nation over cable television. "Mr. Speaker, on this historic day the House of Representatives opens its proceedings for the first time to televised coverage," he said. "Television will change this institution," Gore stated, "but the good will far outweigh the bad."12 Whether the good outweighs the bad in terms of electronic devices on the floor for Member use is the focus of our next section.
A "WIRED" HOUSE CHAMBERIn recent years, the House of Representatives has witnessed many changes that affect its structure, administration, decision-making, and management. Technological developments, such as the distribution and application of computers throughout the national legislature, are among the most significant of these innovations. For example, where telephones and computers were once strictly stationary devices, many Members now personally carry mobile telephones, pagers, or laptop computers and communicate quickly and easily with the people they want to contact.
The House as an institution has access to an array of databases to assist Members and committees in making informed judgments on matters of public policy. The House has supported a Member Information Network of databases. The new Legislative Information System for Congress provides Members with a variety of legislative material using the Internet. In addition, many other information resources for "legislative research and other functions are being made available [to Member and committee offices] through the Internet. It is important that each office have the capability to access these valuable resources through World Wide Web Browsers." 13 Underway, too, are "Office 2000" and "CyberCongress" initiatives to insure that Members and committees are provided with a "robust, coherent, unified, multimedia computer network, with sufficient software and modern compatible equipment, with which the U.S. House of Representatives may effectively function to best serve the American public, the Members of the House, and other government institutions." 14
The general public, too, has greater access than ever to legislative information. At the start of the 104th Congress, for instance, the House Leadership and the Library of Congress inaugurated an electronic information system (called "THOMAS" after Thomas Jefferson) that distributes to the public on-line and free-of-charge legislative information (bills, resolutions, and committee reports, for example) about the House and Senate. These legislative materials are also available to the general public over the Government Printing Office's ACCESS system. Speaker Newt Gingrich made the balanced budget agreement of 1997 available over the Internet. 15
Committees and lawmakers, too, have established public e-mail addresses to facilitate timely two-way communication with the public; there is a bipartisan, bicameral Internet Caucus, one of whose goals is to familiarize lawmakers with computer technology; various committees have employed videoconferencing to conduct interactive hearings; a few committees have experimented with online cybercasts of hearings over the Internet; and the House adopted a new rule (Rule XI, clause 2e) at the start of the 105th Congress which states: "Each committee shall, to the maximum extent feasible, make its publications available in electronic form." The plethora of technological advances on Capitol Hill enables the House and its Members to cope with and to better perform their important functions, especially at a time of ever-increasing complexity in the congressional workload.
In short, the House is "wired" today as it has never been before. A specific exception to this general development is the House floor itself. While extensive wiring exists for the voting and sound system in the chamber, other uses of technology on the floor lag behind broader electronic developments in the House. An appropriate question to pose is whether Rule XIV might require refinement at some point to accommodate the desire of lawmakers either to bring electronic devices (such as laptop computers) to the floor or to have easy access to them at computer work stations on or near the floor. A review of several overlapping arguments may assist in framing any further discussion regarding Member use of electronic devices in the chamber.
ELECTRONIC DEVICES IN THE CHAMBER: AN ASSESSMENTImpact on Decorum. When Vice President Thomas Jefferson served as President of the Senate (1797-1801), he wrote a parliamentary manual -- Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice -- that still influences proceedings of the House to this day. As part of his rules of decorum for floor debate, Jefferson declared that "No one is to disturb another in his speech...." 16 There are additional strictures involving decorum in debate found in the House's formal rulebook (see Rule XIV), in House precedents, and in the Speaker's statement (announced on the opening day of a new Congress) of his policies with respect to certain aspects of the legislative process, including decorum in debate.
The thrust of the Rule XIV prohibition against the personal use of electronic devices on the floor is that they will disturb and distract, as noted earlier, both the Member who holds the floor and those who are trying to listen to what he/she has to say. Simply put, it is discourteous to have a lawmaker discuss an issue on the floor while others might be either "glued" to their computer monitor or attached to their cellular phone neither listening nor paying attention to what is being said. If lawmakers are absorbed in an "electronic world" while on the floor, there is no opportunity for them to consider and weigh the evidence being presented during a speech from their own or their district's point of view.
Debate and deliberation are central to lawmaking bodies. Probably the most highly visible activities of the House, they contribute fundamentally both to well-informed lawmakers and to informed public policymaking. Deliberation is a two-way process, however. "[T]he only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject," declared philosopher John Stuart Mill, "is by hearing what can be said about it by all persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind." 17 If electronic devices are permitted in the chamber, lawmakers may be so engrossed in their "electronic office" that they are unlikely either to be "hearing" or "studying" the viewpoints of their colleagues.
On the other hand, Members today do bring electronic devices to the floor. Lawmakers, for instance, often forget to turn off their pagers when they enter the chamber and the pagers do sometimes go off at inappropriate times, such as when a Member is addressing the body. Cellular phones, too, are still used on the floor despite the prohibition of Rule XIV. The point is that the current rule is not usually strictly enforced and the presence of electronic devices does not seem to have had much adverse impact on the overall deliberative character of the House. The fact that there is lax enforcement of Rule XIV suggests that most lawmakers seem willing to tolerate the limited personal use of electronic devices even if they add marginally to the noise level or to indecorum on the floor.
"Noise," in brief, is part of the deliberative process. Members are accustomed to the comings and goings of their colleagues, staff aides, and the pages--who regularly deliver messages to representatives in the chamber. Some lawmakers who read newspapers or who sign constituent mail on the floor may believe, as a result, that the personal use of electronic devices would impact decorum in the chamber hardly at all. 18
However, it might also be argued that the "noise" level in the chamber is normally low. Accordingly, anything that potentially contributes to distractions, such as electronic devices, should be kept from the chamber. Noise only increases to the level of "disturbance," some suggest, when recorded votes are underway. It is during the voting period when most lawmakers are in the chamber and seek out one another to discuss a variety of matters. When debate is underway, however, lawmakers are not shy about asking the Chair to use his/her gavel to end the background chatter so Members can hear colleagues expound on the pending issues.
Effect on Deliberations. Debate in the chamber has a number of beneficial purposes. Members, for example, can build a public record, persuade colleagues, educate the C-SPAN-viewing audience on policy complexities, articulate the intensity of their policy positions, encourage interchanges with lawmakers who hold different viewpoints, identify variable approaches to resolving public problems, and suggest possible areas of accommodation with lawmakers who may not share their point of view. Deliberation, in brief, contributes to the legitimacy of House action by subjecting the collective decision of the majority to argument and evaluation by the people's representatives.
Deliberation is important, too, because it permits errors to be avoided. As Alexander Hamilton once said: the "oftener a measure is brought under examination, the greater the diversity in the situation of those who are to examine it, the less must be the danger of those errors which flow from want of deliberation." 19 The complexity of today's issues combined with a public often deeply conflicted about how to resolve them puts a premium on avoiding policy miscues through careful deliberation.
If electronic devices were allowed on the floor it is possible that some Members would be focused on the electronic world. The general functions of debate--legitimacy and avoidance of error--would be undermined if lawmakers are sending or receiving e-mail from their constituents or lobbyists (if this function is permitted on their laptop) or accessing the Internet.
Lawmakers engaged in trying to clarify issues or persuade colleagues through effective speechmaking can only have the desired impact if there are listening Members. Lawmakers might as well wear earplugs on the floor if they are concentrating on message-sending or message-receiving via their laptop computers. In short, any concept of the House floor as a vigorous marketplace of ideas is surely jeopardized if someone speaks and few listen because their attention is riveted to events in cyberspace.
On the other hand, the argument can be made that deliberation in the House is largely out-of-fashion. Given workload and membership increases over the years and the majority party's goal of advancing its policy agenda in a time-constrained environment, the House has witnessed a significant dropoff in the role of deliberation. In the judgment of two political scientists:
The need to process a growing legislative workload, to be responsive to an impatient public, and to compete with other institutions for national policy influence has resulted in a sacrifice of deliberation. Put simply, in the context of late twentieth century American democracy, the values of responsiveness, expertise, and efficiency have displaced deliberation as they have come into conflict. Increasingly, the House floor is a processor of bills rather than an arena of deliberation. 20
Another scholar contends that it is simply unrealistic to expect deliberation (defined as "the process by which a group of people get together and talk through a complex problem, mapping the problem's contours, defining the alternatives, and figuring out where they stand"21) to take place in an unwieldy body of 435 lawmakers. Hence the importance of structured rules from the House Rules Committee that focus debate on the major issues before the membership, that fairly apportion time between and among the contending sides, and that promote orderly consideration of complex legislation. In effect, this perspective on deliberation harkens back to the oft-quoted statement by Woodrow Wilson: "Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work." Deliberation is simply more practicable in small group settings, such as committees, compared to plenary meetings of the entire membership.
If these scholars are correct in their assessment about the typical lack of genuine deliberation in today's House, this suggests that Member use of electronic devices would only marginally impact the conduct of general debate. Arguably, their use might even attract more lawmakers to the floor. "Down" time on the floor, for instance, could be put to productive use if personal laptops were permitted in the chamber. Further, if laptops were connected to data and analytical bases from which Members could instantly retrieve relevant bill-specific information, more lawmakers might engage in the deliberations surrounding a measure's consideration on the House floor.
The personal use of electronic technology on the floor has the potential to further democratize decisionmaking by involving more lawmakers in the discussion and by providing them electronically with background materials or alternative analytical perspectives with which to scrutinize the legislation under consideration. To be sure, access to the Internet enables lawmakers to tap into a global system of research and to communicate instantly anywhere in the world.
Worth noting is that at least one-third of all state legislatures (see below) permit computers in their chambers. The question many of them face is not whether to permit electronic devices in the chamber, but which type of computer system can best serve the interests of lawmakers and lawmaking. Members of the California General Assembly, for example, receive a laptop computer which is connected to a pre-existing electronic network. As a result, Members use their laptops to instantly access "analyses of the bills prepared each session by nonpartisan scholars, bill digests and status, the complete history of each bill and the members' previous votes on the bills." 22 Of course the U.S. House and most state houses are fundamentally unalike in such areas as length of session, number of staff, complexity of workload, scale of operations, and degree of press and media coverage.
"Sanctity" of the House Chamber. Today's House, as mentioned earlier, is making rapid advances in cyberspace. Nearly every administrative entity, party leadership unit, and Member and committee office is replete with electronic technology. Further initiatives in providing up-to-date electronic technology to the House and its Members are constantly in the works. In short, there is plainly no shortage or absence of electronic technology in the House.
Given this reality, some legislative officials contend that the chamber ought to be a "sanctuary" that is essentially free of electronic technology. Members, the argument goes, have easy access to electronic devices off-the-floor and their staff can quickly provide them with the materials they need on the floor. Hence, the chamber should remain the place where lawmakers joust intellectually and politically, free from the presence of electronic "intruders."
Lobbying and constituency pressures would surely escalate on the floor if Members were able both to receive and to transmit e-mail and other electronic messages during floor consideration of legislation. Lawmakers, for example, could use their laptops to trigger a flood of timely special interest messages, faxes, and telephone calls to targeted Members who might hold the balance of power in determining a policy outcome. "Electronic lobbying" in the chamber would be an ever-present possibility on scores of controversial measures.
In effect, Member use of electronic devices on the floor could lead over time to an erosion in the representative character of the House. Already underway is a nascent national discussion about an "electronic republic." The availability of interactive telecommunications technology, one analyst argues, "is likely to extend government decision making from the few in the center of power to the many on the outside who wish to participate." 23 The capacity of the House to "refine and enlarge" public opinion, as James Madison wrote in Federalist #10, may be limited in a teledemocracy era. "Wired" Members on the floor could be inundated with spontaneous and perhaps uninformed messages from what appears to be (and might be) either the "voice" of the people or of activists interested in the policy process. Reasoned debate and the exchange of views hallmarks of deliberative, rather than direct, democracy--could be eroded by the introduction into the chamber of instant electronic plebiscites.
Another dimension to the idea of the "floor as sanctuary" is the change in "culture" that might result if lawmakers were permitted to bring electronic devices to the floor. No one can predict whether the availability of electronic technology would become an independent lawmaking force. For instance, could electronic devices transform how laws are made (by altering the internal distribution of power) or how the House's priorities are established or expressed to the public? Might Members become too dependent on technology? Would the House require an array of standby technical staff to fix or replace Members' computers should they break down during floor debate? If lawmakers are able to personalize the information and analysis they want to receive via their laptop computers, would this further polarize the political dialogue and hinder the ability of Members to find common ground on issues? In brief, it is uncertain whether technology in the chamber would tend more to divide or to unite the House as it grapples with contemporary challenges.
On the other hand, some suggest that it is only a matter of time before a new generation of lawmakers wins election to the House and for whom electronic devices are simply second nature. For these "Netizens," cyberspace is something they've traveled in since childhood. When elected to the House, they are likely to ask why they can't bring their personal electronic technology to the floor, especially if it is to be used exclusively to acquire floor-specific information. When and if persons of this persuasion constitute a majority of the House, there could well be a redefinition of the "floor as sanctuary."
Advances in technology, for instance, may enable future lawmakers to employ "virtual reality" multimedia displays. During consideration of a NASA reauthorization bill, as an example, lawmakers might be able to experience the equivalent of what it is like to be on Mars or some other planet. 24 "Wearable" computers might soon replace microcomputers or laptops and be so unobtrusive that their use will not distract any Member on the floor. "The ultimate goal of research into wearable computers," says an M.I.T. professor, "is to produce devices that are as unobtrusive and as useful as eyeglasses or a wristwatch." 25 Before any of this high-technology appears permanently in the chamber, lawmakers may decide to employ various electronic devices on a trial basis during selected periods of the legislative day, such as the one-minute or special order periods.
TECHNOLOGICAL DEVELOPMENTS AND OPTIONSTechnological Infrastructure. Over the years, the House has invested substantially in building the computer and telecommunications infrastructure necessary to support its internal operations. Beginning in the 104th Congress, the House initiated a major upgrade of its core electronic information operations to ensure that modern equipment and services are available to all Member and committee offices. These efforts, named the CyberCongress Project, focused on key application areas of importance to the House, including extensive access to a wide range of legislative information resources, House-wide e-mail capabilities, dissemination of Member and Committee information via World Wide Web pages, and improved connections to district offices. As a result of these efforts, all House offices now may access the expanding House network of information resources and connect to the Internet. Almost all Members have implemented this capability. In addition, more Members are connecting their district offices to the House-wide network and making use of remote access when they are away from Capitol Hill through a secure dial-up system. 26
In the House chamber, as noted above, the installation of technology has focused on supporting the electronic voting system and broadcasting of floor proceedings. The electronic voting system, in addition to processing the votes of Members, delivers voting information to the leadership desks and to computers available to all Members at the back of the chamber. Officers and clerks at the dais also have phones, a fax machine, and a PC and printer linked to the voting system to conduct official business. The sound system includes over 700 speakers located throughout the chamber. Every effort is made to ensure that the equipment is unobtrusive. For example, computer screens are hidden within desks and the vote tally board blends into the decor of the chamber. In addition, special efforts are made to ensure that electronic devices do not disturb the proceedings (e.g., phones flash lights rather than ring).
A raised floor allows wiring for these different systems to run under the chamber. The fiber cables for the voting system are restricted to use for only that purpose to ensure system security and reliability. Additional wiring could be laid to connect to other systems or networks to provide access to Member offices, party leadership offices, committees, the Legislative Information System, and other databases made available by House Information Resources. A major obstacle to expanding the number of machines in the House chamber, however, is the lack of available space on the floor. Additionally, there are no assigned seats for Members nor desks on which to place the equipment. Thus, the logistics for providing each Member with either an installed PC in a given location or outlets for attaching portable PCs to new wiring in the chamber would be cumbersome. Members would literally have to hold their laptop computers in their laps. Comparing the situation in the House to the Senate, Representative Vern Ehlers commented, "It's a lot more difficult in the House. We don't even have desks." 27
Another option for electronically connecting Members from the floor to other computer systems would be to install a wireless system that would link PCs to the House network. While this approach would eliminate the need to place additional wiring in the chamber, it would require the installation of transmitter/receiver equipment and would raise additional security concerns. Moreover, it would not solve the problem of where to physically place individual PCs.
Additional technology is installed off the floor in several adjacent areas. The Democratic and Republican cloakrooms have copiers, terminals with access to the voting system, PCs connected to the House network, printers, and telephones. Other copying equipment and phones are available in the Speaker's lobby.
Increasing Role of Technology. Technology is becoming more pervasive in society. In particular, as large organizations attempt to increase efficiencies, improve productivity, and manage work flow more effectively, information technologies have become central to those efforts. Likewise, the House leadership has sought to bring more modern management techniques and related computer and networking technologies to the internal operations of the House. For example, the Clerk's office, which plays a key role in the collection, management, and distribution of legislative information, is making increasing use of technology for these tasks. As computerized systems for managing official documents from their creation through their dissemination and ultimately to their archival retention are fully implemented, information technologies will be widely available throughout the legislative process, including use by clerks on the floor. An indication of this trend is the fact that recently the official reporters on the House floor requested PCs for the purposes of inputting and transmitting information for the Congressional Record. Similarly, as the Legislative Information System expands and provides immediate access to more congressional documents, there may be greater interest in having the ability to retrieve that material on the floor.
A key question is whether the trend toward technology playing a larger part in the internal operations of the House is a harbinger of greater use of PCs by Members in their daily activities, including while they are on the floor. In the Senate, the report of the Sergeant at Arms to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration made a clear distinction between devices that are "used to further the legislative and constitutional function of the Senate as a whole" and those that are used by individual Senators for other purposes.28 As technology penetrates more aspects of society, as new generations of Americans grow up having used PCs from an early age, and as devices become more compact and user-friendly, there is an expectation that electronic devices will be used by larger segments of the population for more and more tasks. Some have suggested, as noted above, that the issue of PCs on the House floor is a generational issue and that in the future legislators will arrive in Congress having used computers for daily business and other activities. They will expect to use PCs when participating in floor debate or considering legislative proposals upon which they will be casting a vote.
Others maintain that deliberation on the floor will always be best served through face-to-face interaction among Members, rather than individuals searching for information from a computer database. Given the fast-paced schedule of lawmakers, the floor remains one of the few venues where it is possible for Members personally to engage each other. Thus, they are unlikely to forgo this opportunity to spend time using a PC. While some contend that ultimately PCs will be used routinely by Members on the floor, others maintain that concerns about decorum in the chamber and the desire for Members to focus on the debates underway, as described in the previous section, will result in continued restrictions on electronic devices on the floor.
Another issue relevant to the use of technology on the floor is the rapid pace of development of new devices that are faster, smaller, quieter, and can perform multiple functions. The trend toward miniaturization makes it increasingly possible to carry around devices that fit in pockets or are the size of cellular phones or pagers. These small devices already have increased capabilities and are multi-functional, including performing information retrieval and e-mail. As the use of hand-held devices in the future becomes more widespread, Members may be more likely to want to use them on the House Floor. Hand-held devices are attractive in terms of mobility and size; however, they have very small screens and keyboards, making them difficult for some people to use, especially for anything more than brief communications.
Technology and its Uses. Discussions of the use of technology often focus on the technology itself, rather than the purpose to which the technology is being applied. In some respects, these considerations can be helpful in evaluating issues related to logistics, costs, convenience, usability, and environmental factors, such as noise or disruptiveness. These factors are important in determining (1) whether certain devices can be accommodated in specific locations, (2) if adjustments need to be made to adapt the technology, or (3) which technologies appear preferable from the user's perspective.
Equally important is the analysis of how the technology will be specifically used. In the case of electronic devices on the House floor, determining which applications might be considered appropriate for use in the chamber based upon existing rules and procedures, as well as on the accepted behavior of Members on the floor is a key element of any assessment. If an activity is currently not permitted on the floor, it seems immaterial whether the actions involve use of a computer. Computers are merely tools for accomplishing different tasks. Thus, a critical test of whether electronic devices have a place on the House floor relates to what is deemed to be appropriate for their use.
For example, some contend that if PCs can be employed to enhance the quality of debate through access to more information on pending legislation, then they should be allowed in the chamber. Others assert that Members should come to the floor prepared to debate the legislative proposal on the agenda and should not need to consult outside sources. In an observation that applies equally well to the House Members, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, "When we go to the floor, we're supposed to know what we're saying. I'd have a hard time looking at 100 people leaning over their computers." 29 In brief, identifying the types of applications for which PCs on the House floor could be employed might be helpful in informing the debate on this topic
Word Processing. Members could make use of PCs on the House floor for a range of word processing tasks directly related to the legislative activity underway. For example, some Members may prefer to take notes on a PC rather than use paper and pen. Members might prepare comments in response to remarks by other Members or draft statements to be included as part of the pending debate. In addition, lawmakers could draft language for amendments they may wish to offer. These various tasks could be accomplished with stand-alone equipment, which is not attached to any type of network. A Member who wanted to print material would find it necessary to use printer equipment located off the House floor.
However, the character of floor proceedings today limits the potential for frequent use of PCs for word processing. There is relatively little impromptu debate that occurs on the House floor. For major legislation the managers of the bill usually have made arrangements for how much debate time is to be allocated among various lawmakers. Most Members come to the floor with prepared statements in hand. Furthermore, many bills are sent to the floor under procedures that inhibit the spontaneous development of amendment language.
Members could use PCs for the purposes of drafting memos or correspondence, or for other work related to their official duties. If PCs were permitted on the floor, it likely would encourage lawmakers to bring office work into the chamber. This development could potentially divert Members' attention from the deliberations on the floor. On the other hand, if PCs were not connected to a network Members could not access their office computers and databases, thus limiting the amount of meaningful work they could do on the floor.
Access to Legislative Information. As the House continues to automate and to integrate its congressional document preparation system from the introduction of legislation through committee actions and floor deliberation (including amendments) and ultimately to final action current versions of bills and report language can be more readily accessed. In conjunction with those developments, the Legislative Information System (LIS) is providing easier access to this expanding database of electronic congressional information. LIS is making it possible for Members to get a wide range of legislative material from a single system. Access to the LIS is provided via the internal House network to Member and committee offices and is available on PCs located in the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms.
Some maintain that it would be desirable to extend electronic access to legislative information on the floor. This could be accomplished in a number of ways, including placing equipment in locations convenient for Members and allowing individual Members to bring PCs to the floor. Additional wiring in the chamber or wireless technology would be necessary to connect the PCs to the House network. Members could thus have access to information on the status of pending legislation; the text of amendments; the text of corresponding Senate bills; and other legislative materials, such as the Congressional Record and the U.S. Code, and related policy analyses prepared by the congressional support agencies or party organizations. Information resources could be limited to a common set of legislative material available to all Members. Alternatively, these resources could be customized to include political party positions, or they might include specially prepared documentation on the pending legislative debate.
There appears to be strong support for enhancing access to legislative information that might better inform floor debate and contribute to the quality of deliberations. Skepticism remains, however, about how much actual use might be made of such information. Most Members, some analysts suggest, have determined their positions on bills prior to their coming to the floor for final debate and votes. Similarly, Members have access in advance to analyses and background information on legislation and it is questionable how much additional research they might do on the floor. Today, the number of legislators who personally use PCs to search for legislative information is small. The situation may change in the future as more Members routinely use computers. In most instances, staff perform computer tasks and present the results to the Members. Legislative information displayed in convenient locations in the chamber or near it, that keeps lawmakers up-to-date on the status of the debate and what bills and amendments are under consideration, might be of most value to Members on the floor.
Electronic Mail (e-mail). Another application of probable interest to Members on the House floor is e-mail. E-mail increasingly is a major form of communication in society today. More Members are using e-mail to communicate with their staffs and with constituents. E-mail enables Members when they may not be in close proximity to their offices to ask questions, request information, or provide direction to office staff, both in Washington and in their district. Given the extremely busy schedule of Members and their regular travel to and from their districts the use of e-mail for these purposes is valued by lawmakers. When Members are on the floor, they often need to communicate with staff. Currently, staff must arrange to meet Members off the floor to provide requested information, to convey new data, to alert Members to changing schedules, or to relay information from constituents or lobbyists. Some maintain that it would be less disruptive to floor proceedings if Members, from the floor, could exchange e-mail messages with their staffs, rather than having to leave the chamber. Others contend that once Members come to the floor they should be insulated from concerns in their offices and other outside pressures.
In addition to their staffs, Members might use e-mail to contact other congressional offices, including those in the Senate, or outside groups. There are concerns about any use of e-mail to communicate with individuals outside Congress. The prohibition against lobbying on the floor might easily be breached through e-mail communication between a Member in the chamber and with outside groups that have an interest in pending legislation. The Rules of the House of Representatives specifically are designed to forbid lobbying on the floor. E-mail messaging would provide a mechanism for circumventing those rules.
Options for Placement of Electronic Equipment. To provide PCs to all Members on the floor is problematic. The physical layout of the House chamber and the lack of assigned seating is not conducive to this purpose. Nevertheless, there are other options for providing greater Member access to computer technology. For example, if it was deemed appropriate for Members to bring PCs onto the floor, one possibility is to provide connections to the House network at seats in the last row of the chamber, thus minimizing disturbances to other Members in the chamber.
A less controversial option would be to provide computer workstations or sites in the Speaker's Lobby or more locations adjacent to the floor where portable PCs could be connected to the House network. Those work areas could be made available to Members in the same way that telephones and copiers are currently installed in locations close to the floor. If a Member wanted to access information or communicate with his or her office, it would be easy to walk off the floor and use this equipment. When there is a delay in action on the floor or other business of less direct interest to some lawmakers is being conducted, a Member could take advantage of the conveniently located equipment to perform other legislative duties. This option would enable Members to make more efficient use of time while on the floor by providing them electronic access to their office and staff. This approach, too, would preserve the "sanctity" of the House floor, eliminate concerns about outside communications, and maintain Members' focus on the pending legislative debate.
Suggestions have been made about how best to provide greater access to legislative information on the floor itself. One option would be to parallel the current arrangement of PCs at the rear of the chamber that provide voting information. Roll-top desks, one on the Republican side of the chamber and one on the Democratic side of the chamber, conceal PCs that can be queried for different displays of voting data. The system is designed so that any Member can utilize the workstation and use the touch screen to request vote information. In a similar fashion, other PCs could be located near the existing electronic workstations to permit Members to request basic legislative information. Members might, for example, check on the status of the floor debate, the agenda for the current day, committee schedules, the text of bills and amendments, and other relevant up-to-the-minute material. The computers also could be customized to provide information from the respective party leadership. A variation on this would be to provide computers on the two sides at the rear of the chamber that display the current status of floor debate. Members could view the screens when they enter the chamber, rather than waiting in line to receive handwritten slips of paper from the respective party floor staff. The video displays would provide easy access to important floor information for Members; however, concerns exist that the screens might be too visible to Members of the other party and might jeopardize floor strategies then underway.
STATE LEGISLATIVE DEVELOPMENTS 30At least 17 states have established automated chamber systems that allow Members to access legislative information through a network via desktop or portable PCs provided by the legislature. Five other states and the Michigan House 31 have indicated that they are in the planning or implementation phases of installing legislative systems in their chambers. Additional states, including Colorado and Kansas, allow Members to bring their own PCs on to the floor and in Idaho, Members who bring their own PCs can connect to legislative information through a wireless network. 32
The first of these automated chamber systems was developed for the Michigan Senate in 1990; it connected Members on the floor with their legislative information system. The Michigan Senate system offers the full text of bills and amendments, calendar information, e-mail within the chamber, and a link to the electronic voting system. Most chamber systems in other state legislatures are designed to provide access to pending legislative information; sometimes they are integrated with the chamber's electronic voting system. Generally, the automated systems have "user-friendly" interfaces that allow members to use touch screens or stylus pens to access the legislative information.
Additional features, such as electronic mail, word processing, and spreadsheet capabilities, are offered in some legislatures. Several states have made the determination that only legislative information be provided in the chamber to avoid any appearance that members are working on matters other than pending floor business.
The initial financial investment for installing automated systems can be considerable for wiring, hardware, software, and network development. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) estimates that "the costs for fully integrated systems may reach $1 million."33 Despite substantial costs, some legislatures claim that they are able to demonstrate significant savings due to greatly reduced printing costs for bills and amendments.
NCSL was unable to identify any state legislatures that have rules prohibiting use of PCs in the chamber, although several states do prohibit use of cellular phones and recording devices. Two states, however, recently had rules changes that address this issue. Alabama changed its rule prohibiting PCs on the floor to limit the prohibition only to PC printers, while Missouri specifically authorized the use of PCs in its chamber as long as other members do not object to any noise created by the machines. 34 The Alabama and Missouri Rules, respectively, are:
Alabama House Rule 37-- No personal computer printers or typewriters shall be allowed on the House floor.
Missouri House Rule 118 -- Tape recorders, portable phones, video equipment, television, photography equipment, and/or any other electronic recording devices are not authorized for use on the floor of the House or in any gallery of the House Chambers unless permission has been granted from the Chair. Nothing contained in this rule shall prevent any member from using a portable laptop computer, which is hereby specifically authorized, unless any other member objects to the noise created or generated by any such laptop computer in which case the Chair may rule on whether or not any specific laptop computer shall be removed from the House floor.
The state legislatures identify several advantages to the installation of chamber systems. Among the primary advantages are (1) providing more effective access to legislative information for members who often have limited staff or time to search for material relevant to the floor deliberations, (2) eliminating the need to print and distribute large numbers of bills and amendments, and (3) developing automated legislative systems geared to the growing cadre of members who are computer-oriented.
In Nebraska, for example, officials estimate that by the end of a session a member has 110 pounds of bills piled on his/her desk. Their expectation is that with online legislative information available to members that number will be significantly lower. 35 In addition to providing members on the floor with enhanced access to information in a cost-effective manner, the installation of legislative systems also further opens public access to legislative information. In California, there are more than 300,000 citizen queries to the California Assembly's database each month.36
Although there has been much praise for automated chamber systems in the state legislatures, there also have been difficulties with the installation of some systems. In addition, concerns have been expressed about the ongoing costs of maintaining the technological infrastructure. Several states, including the Michigan House, North Carolina General Assembly, Illinois, and Florida, experienced delays in receiving equipment and software, requiring them to postpone implementation, sometimes until the next session. The Nevada legislature faced a number of difficulties getting its system operational, including the need to recall the members' laptops for updating.37
Legislatures must also budget for ongoing enhancements to these systems and for technical support. Some members, too, express concern that new technologies may overly impact the chamber's culture and collegiality or will necessitate changes to their rules and procedures to accommodate the new technology. While several states have established task forces or user groups to assist in testing the systems and considerable anecdotal evidence exists, no overall assessments of how members use and rate chamber systems in state legislatures have been published.
* By Jane Bortnick Griffith (Specialist in Information Technology, Science, Technology, and Medicine Division, Congressional Research Service) and Walter J. Oleszek (Senior Specialist in American National Government, Government Division, Congressional Research Service).
1 Congressional Record, January 4, 1995, p. H38.
2 Eric Schmitt, "Senate Won't Yield Floor to Laptops," New York Times, November 9, 1997, p. 22.
3 The Organization of Congress. Hearings before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, 79th Congress, 1st Session (1945), pp. 316, 343.
4 Organization of the Congress. Report of the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, 79th Congress, 2d Session (March 4, 1946), p.31.
5 Organization of Congress. Index to the hearings before the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, 89th Congress, 2d Session (1966), pp. 59-60.
6 Congressional Record. July 27, 1970, p. 25818.
7 Congressional Record. January 15, 1973, p. 1055.
8 Alan Green and Bill Hogan. Gavel to Gavel: A Guide To the Televised Proceedings of Congress. Washington, D.C.: The Benton Foundation, 1982. p. 6.
9 Congressional Record, February 25, 1952, pp. 1334-1335.
10 Broadcasting the Proceedings of the House, A Report of the House Committee on Rules, Rept. No. 95-881 (1978), p. 1.
11 Congressional Record, October 27, 1977, pp. 35425-35437. Also see Ronald Garay, Congressional Television: A Legislative History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984.
12 Congressional Record, March 19, 1979, p. 5411.
13 Report on the Activities of the Committee on House Oversight, H. Rept. 104-885, 104th Congress, 2d Session, p. 79.
14 "CyberCongress Accomplishments During the 104th Congress." Presented by The Computer and Information Working Services Group to the Committee on House Oversight, February 11, 1997. p. 1.
15 Congressional Record, May 16, 1997, p. H2795.
16 Charles W. Johnson, Constitution, Jefferson's Manual, and Rules of the House of Representatives of the United States, 104th Congress, House Document No. 103-342 (1995), p. 170.
17 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty. New York: Norton, 1975, p. 21.
18 There is nothing in the rules of the House of Representatives or parliamentary law regarding the reading of newspapers on the floor. However, if a Member who is speaking believes that newspaper reading constitutes a breach of decorum, he/she or another lawmaker could request the Chair to render a ruling on the point of order. See Congressional Record, October 27, 1993, p. H8510.
19 Quoted in George E. Connor and Bruce I. Oppenheimer, "Deliberation: An Untimed Value in a Timed Game," in Lawrence Dodd and Bruce Oppenheimer, eds., Congress Reconsidered, Fifth Edition, Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1993, p. 318. Hamilton's quote is from The Federalist Papers.
20 Ibid., pp. 327-328.
21 Barbara Sinclair, Unorthodox Lawmaking: New Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C.: CQ Books, 1997, p. 228.
22 Garry Boulard, "Hooked on High-Tech Lawmaking," State Legislatures, April 1997, p. 14.
23 Lawrence K. Grossman, The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age. New York: Viking, 1995. p. 49.
24 Paul Hoversten, "NASA Is Adding A New Dimension: Holodeck Technology Could Make Science Like 'Being There'," USA Today, October 14, 1997, p. 4A.
25 Vincent Kiernan, "Computers You Can Put On May Soon Be No Put-On," The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 24, 1997, p. A22.
26 The Computer and Information Services Working Group, CyberCongress Accomplishments During the 104th Congress, presented to the Committee on House Oversight, U.S. House of Representatives, Feb. 11, 1997, p. 9.
27 Peyman Pejman, "Using Notebooks in Chamber Floors Some Senate Members", Goverment Comouter News, October 20, 1997, p. 53.
28 U.S. Senate. Sergeant at Arms, Use of Mechanical Devices on the Senate Floor: Final Report, July 1997, Transmittal/Recommendations, p. 2.
29 Ed Henry and John Mercurio, "Senate Moves Closer to Allowing Laptops on Floor," Roll Call, August 4, 1997, p. 7.
30 This section is based primarily on: National Conference of State Legislatures. Guide to Legislative Information Technology, Denver CO, December 1995, p. 13-15 and more recent material provided by Pam Greenberg, Senior Policy Specialist for Legislative Information Services, National Conference of State Legislatures.
31 Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina, and Michigan House.
32 Memo from Pam Greenberg, "State Legislative Chamber Information Systems," November 5, 1997.
33 NCSL Guide to Legislative Information Technology, p. 15.
34 Pam Greenberg memo, November 5, 1997.
35 Garry Boulard, "Hooked on High-Tech Lawmaking," State Legislatures, April 1997, p. 12.
36 Ibid, p. 15.