House mulls role of tech in day-to-day operations

They may not be calling it business process re-engineering, but the House Rules and Organization Subcommittee has begun to grapple with questions of how technology might change the way the House operates.

"The goal is to determine how we can meet the internal demand for more flexibility and efficiency, and the external public demand for increased access, while maintaining the Jeffersonian tradition of representative democracy and the decorum and deliberative nature of the House," Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), the chairman of the panel, remarked at a hearing late last month.

Doing so, according to the subcommittee and witnesses at the hearing, involves answering such questions as:

* Might electronic mail require that lawmakers hire more staff to respond to constituents?

* If members are allowed to vote from remote locations, would they lose valuable contact with their colleagues?

* If congressional documents, such as committee reports, are to be posted on-line, how would that change the way these papers are produced?

There is little consensus as to the right answers, said Vince Randazzo, the subcommittee counsel. So far, he said, there has been "very strong sentiment by the members that they were against" remote voting, for example, "because it would take away from the deliberative nature of the institution."

But on other issues, he said, "I don't think anyone came to any conclusion of what the impact [of new technology] would be."

The subcommittee is probing these questions because it recommends the procedures under which the House operates. The panel will have to set new rules to govern - for example, what electronic documents can be posted on committee World Wide Web pages.

Witnesses who testified at the May 24 hearing, Legislating in the 21st Century Congress, said technology could produce profound changes in how the House operates.

Jeffrey Eisenach, president of the conservative think tank Progress and Freedom Foundation, said lawmakers might think about creating ad hoc "virtual committees" whose members could participate in debate from remote locations about pressing issues.

Stephen Frantzich, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, said early computer technology - such as fax machines, word processing, e-mail and computer simulations - has already changed Congress.

Better communications tools have allowed lawmakers to employ more staff in their district offices, he noted, while simulation tools have given them better information about the effects of various policy decisions.

Melissa Kuckro, an aide to the lead Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Calif.), said Internet technology could change such things as the current practice of giving members time to correct transcripts of hearings before they are published on paper.

If an on-line transcript can be posted quickly to a Web page "the old policy doesn't make any sense," she said. On the other hand, the stenographers who record hearings sometimes make mistakes that need to be fixed.

Randazzo said the subcommittee plans to post the transcript of the hearing on its Web site, http://www.house.gov/rules org/21house.html, although the transcript had not been posted at press time.

Meanwhile, Kuckro said, Beilenson has questioned whether new technology is really needed if its benefit is to provide more information at a faster rate, "when, in fact, we had plenty of information and what we really need is more wisdom and judgment, and more ways of dealing with the information."

Randazzo said the earliest time by which the House could put new technology-oriented rules in place would be at the beginning of the next Congress in January.

Another committee, House Oversight, has to complete its assessment of the House's technological capabilities first, he said, while a GOP task force is studying ways to reform congressional committees.

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