Congress Catches Up With High-Tech Gadgets

Congressional members are getting hooked up with cell phones, Palm Pilots and other high-tech gadgets to keep them wired no matter where they are, so much so that BlackBerry wireless communication devices are becoming a necessity for House lawmakers.

The House Committee on Administration recently asked the chamber's chief administrative officer to renew Cingular airtime service for House members' BlackBerry devices. The committee handed out the wireless gadgets after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which highlighted the need for Congress to have better communication methods in times of emergencies.

"I don't claim to be technologically competent … my children today can sit down and do anything," Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the committee's chairman, said. "It's amazing to see some of these members, who, for the first time in their lives, are using something besides a cell phone."

Communication is vital in case the House needs to hold an emergency vote, which requires 100 members to be present, Ney said.

Each BlackBerry is part of the emergency notification system used by the House and the U.S. Capitol Police.

In the Senate, the Republican High-Tech Task Force has given GOP senators wireless intranet service to make available issue briefings, daily schedules, leadership instructions and other information on a handheld computer or cell phone. It's a huge leap for senators who are forbidden by Senate rules to dial up computers or speak on cell phones while on the Senate floor.

But whether the lawmakers actually use the devices given to them is a question of their technical skills, something that has been on the rise among the gray-haired elder statesmen set.

"You'd be surprised how tech-savvy some of these guys are," said Ralph Hellmann, the top lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council, a tech industry group.

ITT recently released its "high-tech voting guide," which highlights legislation of interest to the high-tech community and how congressional members voted on it.

"Some of these guys get it and some of them you could say a word like 'Internet service provider' and they'd say, 'huh? What's that?'" Hellman said.

Of course, some politicians have been techies for a while.

Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who represents the tech-heavy Washington, was a RealNetworks executive before she came to the Senate. House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, has been using e-mail for years and is frequently in search of spam-resistant technology. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, burns his own CDs and puts his own family videos together complete with country music. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who represents tech-centric Northern Virginia, knows as much about technology as many in the industry itself.

"I think because of the nature of their job, communicating from two different residences … they need to constantly travel, they are more sensitive and used to being around technology because they have to," Hellman said. 

But not all lawmakers are up to high-speed. When John Palafoutas, a senior vice president at the tech industry group AeA, worked on Capitol Hill, his boss' computer "was basically a desk lamp."

Some members' standard scheduling devices still are nothing more than 3x5 cards.

"You still see members, they'll reach into their jacket pocket and pull out a card," Palafoutas said.

Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., doesn't use much more than a cell phone to communicate, said his spokesman Andy Davis, but the lawmaker is still integral to legislation pertaining to the high-tech industry.

Hollings, 80, is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and has both riled and gained praise from the tech community and others for his bills relating to digital TV, telecommunications competition, online privacy and broadband.

"Hollings' expertise is as a policy maker," Davis said. "He's looking at it from a big-picture-law-and-policymaking perspective."

Palafoutas said it doesn't matter to him whether lawmakers actually know how to use the gadgets their policies may affect.

"I really couldn't care less if a member of Congress can use technology or not," Palafoutas said. "I want them to appreciate what's going on, understand the technology and the different uses of technology, but I'm not looking for a member of Congress to be a geek."

But Hellman said lawmakers should have some knowledge of the technology to better understand the impact their policies will have.

"I think it is better for our industry and the technology world that they know more," Hellmann said.

Ney said that since all House members are now equipped with the BlackBerry devices, they've had no choice but to figure out how to use them.

"I think the BlackBerries are the thing that's going to get the legislators into high tech," Palafoutas said. "This is sort of an easy way for them to transition to the use of the high-tech apparatus."