Politicians plug in
- By Dibya Sarkar
- May 07, 2001
Last year Rep. Gene Pelowski, while debating an amendment on a public labor initiative in the Minnesota House of Representatives, needed some clarification on the issue. So he booted up his laptop.
He zapped off a couple of e-mails to local firefighting groups, which were concerned about the amendment, waited and then in rolled his answers. "That was the substance of what I used to defeat the amendment," said Pelowski, a representative since 1986. "I just got up on the floor and said, "I received an e-mail dealing with this amendment, and as I had surmised, the impact of the amendment is this. And it comes from this source.'"
Pelowski, an early advocate and adopter of technology in the Minnesota chamber, said virtually all lawmakers use laptops to research information, write amendments, notes and letters, and communicate with their constituents, staff and fellow legislators. "It's very rare now when we're going in for hours at a time where people don't bring [their laptops]," he said.
It's not just a Minnesota phenomenon. Legislatures across the country are more tech-oriented than ever before. In some states, laptops and handheld devices have become as ubiquitous as pen and paper. E-mail is displacing traditional methods of communication between lawmakers and their constituents.
And citizens, hundreds of miles from a statehouse, can view floor debates and hearings via the World Wide Web and, in some places, can even send their testimony using teleconferencing tools.
The change is remarkable, said Steven Clift, a Minnesota-based online strategist who has worked with his state's legislature on using the Internet to enhance citizen participation. "In some ways, it is dramatic in that the Internet [and technology are] viewed as matter of fact in the legislative process," he said. "It was considered something extra, above and beyond. Now, it is a fundamental part of what the legislature does."
Dozens of lawmakers, their aides and legislative technology staff members across the country said it's clear that technology has provided and encouraged a greater civic participation in the legislative process. "I think it's a huge advantage to the common citizen who wants to make their voice heard and doesn't want to send it through a group or through some other type of sanitized representative organization," Pelowski said. "They can, if they wish, log on and get anything a lobbyist gets as fast as a lobbyist gets it. This isn't rocket science up here. It's no big secret. They can read the bills. They can look at the committees in action. They can begin to understand what's going on."
Nationwide, state legislatures are refitting their statehouses to accommodate member and constituent technology needs, supplying desktop and laptop computers, and enhancing their Web sites. A Council of State Governments study, released in December, reported that 31 states made computers available to all their legislators, while 12 supplied mostly their leadership with computers. And, most — if not all — legislative technology offices provide computer training to members and their staffs.
"Compared to the Congress of the United States, states are many years ahead of them," said Keon Chi, editor-in-chief of the Journal of State Governments and author of the CSG report.
Tools of the Trade
But although technology is the trend, not everyone is into it. For example, the Minnesota Senate started using laptops two years after the House, Pelowski said.
Geography, population, the length of voting sessions, budget constraints, term limits and comfort all play roles in how fast legislatures integrate technology. In most cases, leadership is pivotal as well.
In the Kansas Legislature, technology is coming on slowly. David Larson, director of computer services, said the staff members are big computer users, but some lawmakers aren't because they're not comfortable with the machines. Change is coming in "bite-sized chunks," he said.
But in California, technology is pervasive in the full-time legislature, which has 80 assembly members and 40 senators. According to James Gilles, chief deputy director for the Legislative Data Center, the leadership recognized how valuable it could be for improving communication, services and operations.
Gilles also said that after term limits were imposed in 1990, the leadership felt technology could help new legislators "hit the ground running." The thought was that with information at their fingertips from the Internet, the learning curve for freshman lawmakers could be shorter.
Officials in part-time state legislatures, which typically are in session for 90 to 120 days a year, also like the speed technology imparts. They like that it streamlines the process, offering timely information that is always at hand.
In Nevada's legislature, lawmakers are on their third generation of laptops — and giving them a workout, said Allan Smith, information systems manager. Each of the 63 legislators — 21 senators and 42 assembly members — received an IBM Corp. ThinkPad with a wireless network connection. Only one member turned it back in.
A popular trend has been legislature- supplied laptops, an increasingly important tool for the mobile lawmaker. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 34 states provide their legislators with laptops or personal computers in the chamber. Most introduced them in the past four years.
In California, Nevada and Virginia, lawmakers use laptops to research information, view bills, amendments and engrossments, and send e-mails to their staff and notes to colleagues right from the floor.
"It allows us to cover more ground and have more information to make good decisions," said Delegate Joe May, a six-year member of the Virginia House of Delegates and co-chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. "After all, this is a decision-making process, and I can't think of anything more important than good information."
But in other places — Alaska, Kansas and New Jersey, for example — supplying laptops to lawmakers is still just an idea. Bill McCauley, data processing manager for Alaska's Legislative Affairs Agency, said laptops are not a "burning issue" there, but if legislators want them, they buy them on their own.
In California, lawmakers get laptops, which they can use on the floor during sessions. However, they can't receive e-mail from the public during debate — a policy that Gilles said keeps lawmakers from getting distracted.
Some states allow constituent e-mails during floor sessions, others don't. Richard Masek, acting director of the Ohio Legislative Information System Office, said the office doesn't allow the public, including lobbyists, to interact with legislators during a floor session, so the sending of e-mails should not be allowed either. The legislature "wants to insulate members from that kind of pressure," he said.
"We are not only allowed but encouraged and re-inforced for using a laptop on the floor," said Rep. Jeff Hatch-Miller from the Arizona House of Representatives. During a recent floor debate on a particular bill, one legislator received an e-mail message that was then conveyed to the entire House and became a subject of debate, he said.
"It's changing the way democracy works," Hatch-Miller said. "It's moving us toward participatory democracy."
Whatever the policy, computers have become a staple in most legislatures — as a communication tool.
"Five years ago, it was 10 percent e-mail and 90 percent paper. Now, it's 10 percent paper and 90 percent e-mail," said Virginia's May. "I still see literally dozens of people a day in my office, and nothing will ever replace personal contact on really personal issues, but, frankly, technology allows me to be a much more thorough legislator."
In Minnesota, Pelowski said technology has saved the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in printing, mailing and paper disposal. Plus, members no longer lug around stacks of reports.
"When you look at a picture of the House floor, prior to this [technology], almost every member, particularly toward the end of a session, would have several feet of paper on their desk," he said. "And usually they'd take them off their desk and put them by their desk on the floor because you couldn't see over them."
New Jersey's legislature is mulling a pilot program using e-books. Harold Berkowitz of the Office of Legislative Services said the e-books would contain information on the bills being debated that day, yet prevent "laptop distraction syndrome," where members might be tempted away from the debate at hand. (A New Jersey legislator once observed a member of another state legislature playing solitaire on a laptop during a floor session.)
And e-mail has overtaken letter writing as the communication mode of choice for staying in touch with constituents.
Clift calls e-mail the "primary tool of democracy. No doubt about it, whether you're a legislator or citizen, it's the thing you're most intimate with."
Arizona's Hatch-Miller averages 150 e-mail messages a day when the legislature is in session. Sometimes, if the issue is hot, it can jump to as many as 400 or 500 messages. Every message gets an automatic reply, but he tries to skim them all. His district gets priority. Eighty percent of his correspondence is via e-mail.
"We could get to a point where it's not possible to review that mail," he said about the volume. He's considering creating a newsgroup (an online discussion group) for particular bills or issues to try to reduce redundant e-mail. In essence, citizens would post their comments or feelings on a newsgroup and could see what others wrote.
West Virginia House of Delegates member Rick Staton answers each e-mail personally — about 30 to 40 a day during session. Because e-mails are less formal than letters, he responds to them faster, more concisely and any time he wants — which is good because he's not always available by phone.
More to Come
As more lawmakers and the public become comfortable with technology, demand is likely to fuel increased usage of the Internet for electronic communication and digitized information, state officials say.
Most envision a greater adoption of wireless and handheld devices among lawmakers, and some are already using personal digital assistants to keep track of their appointments, e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Others said state legislatures could become a model for a truly paperless office. They say requests are already down for printed reports, bills, amendments and hardbound copies of blue books, with their government information.
Possibilities are limitless. In Minnesota and Nevada, legislatures have rooms wired to receive testimony beamed from other areas in the state. This allows the public greater and easier access to the legislature, especially if constituents live hours away or are crunched for time.
Clift said state legislatures need to enhance technology because theexecutive branches of their governments are spending millions of dollars to do the same thing. If not, it is an imbalance in power. "The thing I wonder out loud is, how will politicians have to change to survive in the Information Age?" he said. "Will they have to shift from an information control mentality to a situation where leaders of the future are those guiding you with a rudder through the information sea? I think the information guide will be the politician of the future."