Transforming Congress

Congress, unfairly or not, has earned a reputation for being a group of Luddites. This reputation dates back to 1995, when Capitol Hill voted to provide freshman lawmakers with laptop computers but did not approve their use on the floor of the House or Senate.

That's what makes the vision of a "virtual hearing room" — proposed by Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) — so refreshing. Still in the concept stage, the hearing room would be equipped with secure workstations and videoconferencing technology that would enable committee members to question witnesses located anywhere in the world.

The workstations also could be used to provide multimedia presentations on issues at hand.

The particulars of Weldon's proposal are less important than his motives.

Congress, Weldon argues, needs to grasp the broader ramifications of technology — what the Defense Department calls "transformation" — and the virtual hearing room represents a way to learn about technology, through both seeing and doing.

Weldon is right. Many of the Bush administration's top priorities — including homeland security, DOD modernization and e-government — aim to transform, not just automate, government operations through increasingly sophisticated uses of information technology.

Congress is a necessary partner in these initiatives, because such efforts often require changes to rules and regulations and always need money. Members are adept at learning on the fly as they craft legislation and review budgets, but as the White House advances into newer and stranger territory with IT, many members may find themselves out of their depths.

Weldon's idea of a virtual hearing room would be a creative way to begin the education process. But whatever the fate of this particular proposal, his concerns have merit and should be addressed.

For Congress, transformation ought to begin at home.

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