The Congressional Spectator

Snuff Boxes and Spittoons, But No Laptops?

Luddite lawmakers in Washington.

By 1.27.14

UPI
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The floors of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are rich in tradition and tightly governed by strict rules of decorum. That’s important to both institutions, but occasionally it is a major obstruction to progress.

One shocking example is that lawmakers are prohibited from using laptops on the floors of either body. Oh, to be sure, quill pens, snuff boxes and spittoons are allowed, but modern technology is banned.

With the mind-numbing complexity of legislative packages that are debated in Congress, ready access to computers would be a valuable aid. But only the House has revised its rules to allow the use of iPads, tablets, and iPhones on the floor of its chamber.

The Congressional laptop ban has been challenged in the past. As early as 1997, then newly-elected Senator Mike Enzi (dubbed “Cyber Senator” because of his proud geek status) petitioned for permission to use his laptop computer on the Senate floor so that he could study the issues at hand or communicate with his staff during lengthy debates.

Enzi pointed out that 35 states allow lawmakers to use their PCs in their legislative chambers (for example, televised coverage of either chamber of the Illinois General Assembly routinely displays a sea of laptop lids and luminous screens). But, Enzi’s request was summarily rejected by the hide-bound Senate. The Rules Committee informed Enzi that any mechanical devices that "distract, interrupt, or inconvenience" members are strictly verboten.

Distract? Interrupt? Inconvenience? Hardly! The use of laptops and other electronic devices couldn’t be more of a distraction than the constant buzz of private conversations in the well of the chamber. Quite the contrary, these electronic gadgets would facilitate more focused debate in Congress. Moreover, I’ve yet to see a laptop interrupt anyone. Finally, laptops would provide an exceptional technological convenience that would in no way be an inconvenience anyone. In short, the argument that Enzi's laptop would violate Senate decorum is simply wrong-headed adherence to an outdated tradition.

The most compelling argument in favor of allowing laptops on the floors of the House and Senate is the very size and complexity of the bills that members debate. Most recently, for example, the House of Representative voted overwhelmingly to approve a $1.1 trillion spending bill for the current fiscal year. That bill, which is 1,582 pages long, was unveiled to the lawmakers just two nights before the vote. So, guess how many of the lawmakers read it word for word? Probably not one. My guess is that Congressional staffers burned some heavy midnight oil to brief their bosses on the budget package.

Meanwhile, the immigration reform bill, hammered out by the Gang of Eight, weighs in at a hefty 844 pages. It’s been shuffled to the Congressional back burner for some time, so I suspect that very few lawmakers have taken the time to read it word-for-word.

The so-called farm bill, technically The Agricultural Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, is a mere 629 pages long. But, it is laden with technical concepts that would glaze the eyes of most Americans and I suspect most lawmakers as well. As for how many members of Congress have waded all the way through this muddled morass of agricultural economics… who knows?

Of course, the hyper-complex Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare, runs a staggering 2,400 pages. When it was passed, many pundits complained that few lawmakers had read it from beginning to end and that even fewer had any idea what it provided. Since its passage bureaucrats have added another 20,000 pages of regulations. This sharp increase in its maddening complexity is understandably a regular target of Republican critics.

The granddaddy of all complex federal statutes is the Internal Revenue Code, which has grown to a staggering 73,954 pages. Each one of those pages is part of a law that had to be considered, debated, and ultimately passed by the Congress. Think any member of Congress has ever read the federal tax laws they have passed over the years? I doubt it.

Members of Congress may not have read the bills, but they regularly make good use of them in other ways. Probably, the most frequent use of the printed text of a Congressional bill is as a prop in the debate where members bitterly complain about the complexity and size of the proposed legislation, while wrestling to hold the three volume, 15-pound printed bill aloft.

The result of all this legislative complexity combined with the lack of computerized analysis and convenience in the Congressional chambers is that our lawmakers are relegated to debating the broad policy issues raised by proposed legislation while their aides and staffers wrestle with the all the important details. Of course, as with most House and Senate bills, “the devil is in the details” and those details are the exclusive domain of Congressional aides and staffers, not the lawmakers themselves.

Hence the “tyranny of Congressional staffers.” Our elected lawmakers posture, arm-twist, pontificate, distribute “pork” and orate with empty platitudes about leadership, while their staffers, by default, run the legislative process and write the laws.

To be sure, allowing use of laptops and other electronic devices on the floor of the Senate is unlikely to break the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed normal operation of the legislative branch of government. But, allowing lawmakers Congress regular use of 21st century technology in its chambers would give them the tools to more completely analyze and better understand the variety of complex laws they foist upon Americans.

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About the Author

Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law.