A revolution is brewing in the United States Congress that could have profound consequences for public policy and institutional performance. It is not the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives that will bring scores of new members to Washington, D.C. in January.
Nor is it the proposed tax cut legislation that people see either as a second stimulus package, a giveaway to the rich, or a sellout of Tea Party deficit reduction principles. Important as those developments are, they pale in comparison to the possibility that new Speaker John Boehner may allow members to bring Blackberrys, iPads, computers, and other electronic devices onto the floor of the House of Representatives.
With the ubiquity of smart computers and handheld devices, it is surprising that current rules prohibit use of electronic gadgets on the floor of the legislative chamber. You can’t walk down the sidewalks in any major city without seeing ordinary folks talking on cellphones or seeking online information.
But these devices are not allowed either in the U.S. House or Senate. Indeed, the latter has signs outside the chamber instructing Senators not to bring computers or electronic equipment onto the floor of the Senate. The only people allowed to use computers there are transcribers and the Senate parliamentarian.
There clearly are sound reasons behind this restriction. Congressional leaders want representatives and Senators to pay attention to floor discussion. When colleagues are debating matters of great national and international importance, it looks rude for members to be answering emails or surfing the Web.
In addition, it is hard to abandon decades of Congressional traditions. Both legislative chambers long have sought to maintain decorum and eliminate distractions from the policy business at hand.
But the problem is that these policies have failed abysmally and rest on models of operation that no longer are sustainable. It is a myth that the House and Senate are deliberative bodies. Most of the time, there are few legislators on the floor at the same time. Members quit listening to one another’s speeches years ago.
It also is fanciful that there are no distractions on the legislative floor. Even without electronic aids, members attack one another, criticize opposition proposals, and refuse to work together. These are not functions of technology, but political polarization and the hyper-partisanship of the current period.
It is hard to imagine that technology will make matters worse. You can’t get much more dysfunctional that our current House and Senate. They have problems addressing budget deficits, climate change, immigration reform, energy security, trade policy, judicial nominations, and international treaties, to name just a few areas. President Obama still has members of his top administration who are awaiting Senate confirmation.
It is conceivable that technology innovation actually might improve legislative operations the way it has in the private sector. In many industries, electronic devices have raised worker productivity, introduced efficiency, and improved communications. They allow people on the run to stay connected with one another.
Digital devices could allow members on the floor to have up-to-date information for legislative debates. They would allow Congress to save money on bill printing by distributing electronic copies instead. They could help members stay in touch with their staffs when they are deliberating on the fine points of policymaking.
We should applaud the proposed digital revolution on Capitol Hill. It will allow members to be more effective on the job and stay in better touch with the outside world. We could use less insularity on the floors of the House and Senate.