Congress Legislates, Procrastinates On Tech

WASHINGTON (04/18/2000) - Not all members of Congress are as technologically savvy as the people they represent.

Every year members of Congress debate information technology bills on topics ranging from bridging the digital divide to e-government to online procurement.

But as Congress pushes technology mandates on federal agencies, Congress itself is slow to enter the Information Age, according to industry experts who gathered last month at a conference to discuss the Hill's technology reticence.

A Senate staff member who asked not to be identified said she had to explain to her boss how to access the Internet and use a mouse so that the senator could view his own World Wide Web site.

"Not all [members of Congress] are familiar with the latest technology," the staff member said. "We not only have to bridge the digital divide in the nation but in Congress as well."

While technology offers great opportunities to immediately respond to constituents' requests, many members of Congress are leery of using technology to correspond, according to Vic Fazio, senior partner at Clark and Weinstock and a former Republican congressman from California.

"It is difficult to tell who has sent an e-mail message and where it came from," Fazio said during a March 29 Library of Congress Conference. "Most members are not interested in the views of those who don't vote for them or have the potential to vote for them, so when an office is inundated with messages it is sometimes easier not to respond."

According to Daniel Mulhollan, director of Congressional Research Services at the Library of Congress, many congressional staffs are fearful of using technology because electronic records created are not always confidential.

"I have been told by several staffs that they have a policy not to create anything electronically that they wouldn't want to see printed on the front page in the morning," he said. "There is always a chance that e-mail messages or information on your hard drive may be subpoenaed."

Legislators fear that their successors could access -- and in some cases have accessed -- confidential electronic documents left behind to "create hay," Fazio added. "You may think a document was deleted from your computer and it hasn't been. It has made people afraid to put anything in writing and has impeded the conversation flow."

But the fear of misuse should not supersede a member's use of technology, said Mary Jane Collipriest, public affairs officer for Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah).

"There is risk in any information sharing. You have to weigh the benefits of using technology, which greatly outweighs the cons."

Bennett's office uses technology whenever possible. Technology has helped staff members stay in touch with one another as well as with constituents and fellow members of Congress.

"The technology is here to stay. It has permeated our lives and is an undeniable fact of life," Collipriest said. "By not using technology we are robbing ourselves of a valuable tool."

Congress members' fears about using new technology have not been confined to individual legislative offices. In 1995 Congress approved the distribution of laptop computers to all incoming freshmen.

Laptops provided access to the congressional intranet so that newcomers could keep up on legislation and learn about Congress prior to taking office. What Congress forgot to tell the newly elected senators and representatives, however, was that electronic devices were not allowed on the floor of neither the House nor the Senate.

However, nearly one-third of all state legislatures allow personal electronic devices in their chambers, according to a congressional report released in July 1999. In California, General Assembly members use 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 bills," the report stated.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming.) believes that laptops would be an asset to the congressional process and plans to introduce legislation this year which will allow laptops on the floor, said Lindsay Holmen, deputy press secretary for Enzi.

"Laptops would allow for volumes of information to be available at a [member's] fingertips," she said. "It would save [members of Congress] from ruffling through piles of papers which is very distracting. [Enzi] wants to make sure the legislative branch is not weakened because it is relying on old technology."

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