House panel joins Info Age

Congress, not known as the most technologically adept group, has taken a significant step toward joining the rest of us in the late 20th century.

The House Science Committee recently spent $400,000 to install numerous technological widgets in its Rayburn House Office Building meeting room, including flat-screen video monitors, a Digital Video Disc player, a digital sound system, cameras and other equipment. Witnesses now can enhance their testimony by incorporating video and World Wide Web resources, and committee hearings can be broadcast live over the Internet. Today witnesses and committee members have the same options as any presenter at a conference or corporate meeting.

All this high-tech gadgetry seems a bit out of place in an institution whose members banned the ubiquitous laptop from the Senate floor less than two years ago and whose many members, according to a recent survey, still send hard-copy letters in response to e-mail messages.

But at least the House Science Committee is trying to practice what it preaches. For years, the committee has prodded, scolded and supported agencies for their use of information technology. The committee has pushed agencies to rely on IT to improve the way they conduct business and deliver services to the public.

By taking a page out of its own management book, we can only hope the committee also will learn more about what IT can do and then apply those lessons to its oversight of agencies' IT programs.

That is not to suggest that running an automated camera control system somehow compares to managing an air traffic control system - even if that camera system does automatically zoom in on the person speaking or, when two people are talking at the same time, on the committee member with the most seniority.

But at least the committee is displaying the kind of pioneering spirit that Congress would like to instill in offices across government. Other committees, particularly in the tradition-bound Senate, would do well to follow the House Science Committee's lead and enter the late 20th century before the 21st arrives.

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