Using notebooks in chamber floors some Senate members

Sen. Mike Enzi is more amused than upset.


"When I brought it up, I certainly did not expect this much opposition nor did I
think it would raise so much discussion," the Wyoming Republican said, with a hint of
sarcasm.


What the freshman senator wanted to do one summer day was, to him at least, something
simple. He wanted to use his notebook computer on the Senate floor. What he found was, in
the words of one Senate staff member, the "firewall of this hugely traditional
institution." Enzi said he was told by colleagues that he could not use his notebook
because Senate rules prohibited it. "I asked which law, but they could not find
it," he said.


Since then, the issue of whether senators can use their portable computers in the
Senate chamber has snowballed into a question that every senator has been asked to comment
on, and a topic on which the Senate might have to vote if someone introduces legislation.


In the absence of a clear rule and in the presence of multiple opinions, Enzi asked for
a decision from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.


Carter Cornick, press secretary for Rules and Administration chairman Sen. John Warner
(R-Va.), said the chairman held a preliminary meeting in July during which the Senate's
sergeant at arms presented a report on existing laws on the issue and implications of
permitting senators to use their notebooks while in chamber.


Cornick said Warner had not formed an opinion yet and expects to hold a hearing
sometime next month. Warner has sent a copy of the sergeant at arms' report to all
senators and has asked for their comments.


In his report to the committee, sergeant at arms Gregory Casey quoted Rule IV in the
Regulation of the Senate Wing as justification for his opinion that the Senate might allow
notebook computers as tools for taking notes, but they should not be connected to an
outside network.


The rule states: "The sergeant at arms shall be authorized to admit into the
Senate chamber such mechanical equipment and/or devices which, in the judgment of the
sergeant at arms, are necessary and proper in the conduct of the official Senate business
and which by their presence shall not in any way distract, interrupt or inconvenience the
business of members of the Senate."


Enzi said the rule does not refer to electrical devices such as computers. Casey said
although the rule only notes mechanical devices, electrical ones could be included by
inference.


"The presence of networked devices on the Senate floor poses security, policy and
ethical questions as yet unanswered," Casey's report said. "Such devices could
transmit privileged conversations or information from the Senate floor."


If senators used the computers to communicate with people outside the Senate floor,
special interest groups might succeed in getting a "virtual presence" on the
floor, which would violate Senate rules, the report said.


"Finally, whether the Senate chamber will remain a sanctuary for conversations
between senators or become a senator's electronic office is a matter of policy yet to be
determined," the sergeant at arms concluded.


Enzi said he initially wanted to use his notebook only to take notes and prepare
rebuttals using information stored on his hard drive.


He said notebooks connected to an outside network would reduce staff work by letting
senators do more of their work without help, making the Senate more efficient.


"If we can have more information, we will be more aware of the intricacies of what
we are voting on," he said. Enzi said Senate leaders have been supportive but
acknowledged that "things move slow here."


The House, in a package of rule changes, voted in 1995 to prohibit "any electrical
office equipment" in the House chamber. Don Wolsensberger, a former counsel to the
House Rules Committee who participated in the rule-making deliberations, said the rule was
passed mainly because members' beepers, pagers and cellular phones were disruptive.


Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), considered a technology advocate by his colleagues, said
he does not see a similar movement in the House for notebook use on the House floor.


"It's a lot more difficult in the House," he said. "We don't even have
desks."


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