Weldon envisions virtual hearings

If one Congressman has his way, a virtual hearing room on Capitol Hill will help transform the legislative process.

Imagine this: The United States has suffered an embarrassing military blunder on a base in the Pacific Rim and members of Congress want answers. The House Armed Services Committee is demanding a hearing on the gaffe and has given the commander of the installation less than 24 hours to prepare a brief on the events.

Without hesitation, the commander, seated in his office halfway around the world, agrees and soon begins briefing the full committee — seated comfortably in a Capitol Hill hearing room.

Right now, this hearing scenario is impossible. But Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) has made it a priority for next year to create a virtual hearing room on Capitol Hill.

Speaking last week at the International Quality and Productivity Center's Network Centric Warfare 2002 conference, Weldon said the key to getting Congress' support for funding military transformation initiatives is educating members and making them adapt.

Most members of Congress do not understand network-centric warfare — which seeks to make data available to those who need it across the organization or on the battlefield — or consider it a priority because there is not a natural constituency for the concept as there is for building more warships, he said.

"Legacy systems have the attention of Congress; transformation doesn't," said Weldon, who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee's Military Procurement Subcommittee. "If we expect to win the battle of network-centric warfare, we have to have a transformation of the Congress as well."

To do that, Weldon said he'd like to see a virtual hearing room built in one of the congressional buildings on Capitol Hill. The room would be equipped with secure workstations for all the members and enable real-time programming to locations around the world.

For example, if the engineers at the Army's Communications-Electronics Command in Fort Monmouth, N.J., developed a revolutionary piece of technology and wanted to brief Congress on it, they could do so without having to come to Capitol Hill, Weldon said.

John Garstka, assistant director of concepts and operations in the Office of Force Transformation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said that he's seen similar capabilities, specifically videoconferencing and visualization tools, used in comparable settings and does not see why it couldn't work on Capitol Hill.

"I would not see any technological challenges," Garstka said, adding that politics and resources would be the main obstacles. "If Congress wanted to do it, they could fund it."

If funding is made available, other issues would need to be addressed, such as security and bandwidth capabilities.

When asked if Congress could do something similar, Fredric Lederer, chancellor professor of law at the College of William and Mary, said, "It's a cinch, but it depends how high-tech you want to go. The concept of [virtual] hearing rooms on Capitol Hill is a very fine idea because it allows Congress the opportunity to take testimony from those that can't travel and replicate things" that aren't easily done in Washington, D.C.

Still, security would be a major concern, especially for members wanting to conduct briefings on top-secret subjects.

"The key word is 'secure' as far as the setup goes," Lederer said, adding that the defense and intelligence communities have defined levels of security to meet, and even that might not be enough. "I'd assume there are subjects they couldn't ever talk about in that room."

If security and bandwidth issues were addressed, a virtual hearing room could be set up in about a week, he said.


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