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Spittoons And Quills But No Laptops, Please


Back in 1914, Representative Allan Walsh of New Jersey had a revolutionary idea. Walsh, an electrical engineer by training, suggested that the House allow its members to vote electronically. His plan was referred to the House Rules Committee -- and buried for 56 years. The House entered the 20th century in 1970 when it unveiled a newfangled computerized system for voting. Across the Capitol, however, the Senate stubbornly clings to its 18th century sensibilities. And those hallowed traditions do not include modern technology.

Which brings us to Senator Mike Enzi. The Wyoming Republican was an accountant, shoe store owner, and computer programmer before he won a Senate seat in 1996. A former Eagle Scout dubbed "Cyber Senator" because of his proud geek status, Enzi saw no reason why he shouldn't be allowed to carry his laptop to the Senate floor so that he could study the issues at hand or communicate with his staff during lengthy debates. After all, 35 states provide PCs in their chambers for lawmakers. But this is the U.S. Senate, where the Rules Committee informed upstart Enzi that any mechanical devices that "distract, interrupt, or inconvenience" members are strictly verboten. Enzi's laptop would violate both Senate decorum and traditions.

The Senate's Luddite approach extends to other areas, with serious consequences. Senators and their opponents don't have to file campaign contribution reports electronically, a requirement for all other federal candidates. "It is almost impossible to get timely disclosure from Senate campaigns," says Carol Darr, director of the George Washington University Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet. "It's not just technophobia. It's deliberate."

Even security can't trump the rules. After September 11, every member of Congress was issued a BlackBerry for instant communication in emergencies. But if a senator is seen using one inside the chamber, he or she can be written up for a rules violation.

Thumbing on the Sly

The senate reasons that John Adams didn't use a laptop, so neither should Mike Enzi. Quill pens, inkwells, and starched wigs are permitted. But a cell phone, a pager, or, heaven forbid, a laptop could get a lawmaker ejected. "It's the same reason we have spittoons and snuff boxes in the chamber," says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. "There's a veneration of the way the chamber has always operated."

A decade after his arrival, Enzi, 62, is still fighting an uphill battle. While he can flaunt his laptop at committee hearings, he wants Internet access at his desk on the floor. "BlackBerrys have dramatically increased our communication abilities, but laptops have more data storage, allow the user to type faster, and information is easier to read," he says. "The more information you are able to access on the floor, the more time you can spend listening to the debate."

The rules persist even as senators are increasingly wired. Many have embraced PDAs and PCs. "These items have become indispensable for many senators, especially when their time is double- and triple-booked," says Patrick Ross, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation. Indeed, Ross says, some senators have been sighted "discreetly checking their BlackBerrys" during debate.

One day that kind of guilty pleasure might be legal. But Enzi shouldn't hold his breath. "When the Senate gets around to allowing laptops," laughs historian Ritchie, "laptops will be obsolete."

If you don't like those ads spewing out of your fax machine, you'll have to call the feds. A U.S. District Court judge in California on Feb. 27 overturned a state ban on unsolicited faxes. The court found that the 2005 California law interfered with interstate commerce and was superseded by a federal law that bars junk faxes but allows solicitations sent by companies that have a previous business relationship with the recipient.

Business groups had fought to overturn the California law. Companies argued that the cost of screening out faxes to the Golden State would be cumbersome and expensive. Bottom line: Businesses prefer one federal law to a patchwork of state rules.

What does the CIA have against Bill Clinton? In the latest episode of virtual vandalism by federal employees, CIA staffers have been caught altering entries in Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone with an Internet connection. Someone using an agency computer changed Wiki's Clinton entry to note that the ex-President was "dumber" than his GOP predecessors. Spooks aren't the only ones playing dirty tricks. Wiki reports that computer users at the Justice Dept., Marine Corps, and Navy have politicized entries in recent weeks.

Earlier this year, Wikipedia blocked Capitol Hill access to the site after lawmaker entries were subjected to political spin and fabrications. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales calls the shenan-igans "routine."


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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