Floor Pass

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 5 2006 7:55 AM

Floor Pass

The unfortunate saga of the House and PDAs.

80_thehasbeen

Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006

Surely, You Joust: Already, our polarized country has descended into a Kausfiles-like debate over how House Republicans will pretend to solve the Foley problem. On Monday, I suggested that they build a fence around congressional pages. On Wednesday, Harold Meyerson proposed building the fence around Republican members of Congress. My way's cheaper, but Republicans may prefer Harold's based on its greater potential for government contracts.

Hastert's fellow Illinois Republican, Rep. Ray LaHood, chimed in with another suggestion—abolishing the page program altogether. Nevada Rep. Jon Porter wants to do that, too. John Tierney liked the idea so much, he wrote his whole column in the New York Times about it. (TimesSelect subscription required.)

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Meyerson and others have been quick to point out the hypocrisy in the age-old strategy of blaming the victim. But there's a bigger problem with the page ban. While Tierney mocks congressional pages as an aristocratic relic in an age of modern electronic communications, he overlooks the great irony of his own suggestion. If Congress no longer had pages to carry messages, the only way for members to send messages would be to spend more time IMing.

On Mark Foley's very first day in Congress—in January 1995, at the opening session of the Republican Congress swept into office in the 1994 election—the House of Representatives adopted a new rule: "Neither shall any person be allowed to ... use any personal, electronic office equipment (including cellular phones and computers) upon the floor of the House at any time." According to a 1997 House report, the rule was a bipartisan crackdown on the constant "chirping" of pagers and cellphones and other electronic "disruptions and distractions."

That report quoted the first floor speech to air on C-SPAN, in which Rep. Al Gore predicted in 1979 that television would change the House, "but the good will far outweigh the bad." The report then asked "whether the good outweighs the bad in terms of electronic devices on the floor for Member use." One warning stands out as particularly prescient:

"If electronic devices were allowed on the floor it is possible that some Members would be focused on the electronic world. … The chamber should remain the place where lawmakers joust intellectually and politically, free from the presence of electronic 'intruders.' "

Heeding that report, the House didn't amend its rules to permit "unobtrusive handheld electronic devices" in the chamber until January 2003. That appears to be the very same year Mark Foley began living dangerously.

The use of cell phones and laptops is still prohibited on the House floor, along with hats and smoking. House members can vote electronically, but have to meet their other electronic needs elsewhere.

If Congress sent all the congressional pages home, the cell phone and laptop bans would be sure to follow. Both chambers might become a buzzing, chirping jungle. The same institution that once listened in awe to Daniel Webster would sound like Amtrak's Acela train when there are no seats left in the quiet car.

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