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Proposed U.S. House Rules Welcome (Quiet) Mobile Devices to the Floor

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, December 23 2010

So, it looks like, yep, iPads are indeed coming to the floor of the House of Representatives, at least as long as the rules changes proposed by the incoming Republican leadership are adopted as they stand.

In this last Congress, the 111th, the House operated under a rule [pdf] that dictated that no one shall "smoke or use a wireless telephone or personal computer on the floor of the House." But, according to copy of the proposed rules just posted to the website of the Committee on Rules, that section has been tweaked for the 112th congress to give the Speaker of the House wide discretion in dictating what sort of mobile technologies members and staffers can bring to and use on the floor of the House.

"A person on the floor of the House," read the new proposed rules, "may not smoke or use a mobile or electronic device that impairs decorum," italics added. (Raising the possibility, of course, that a good game of Angry Birds might help folks in the House ignore their nicotine cravings.)

Of course, it all hinges on what a decorum-impairing device constitutes. But a spokesperson for the GOP transition team confirms that the rules are intended to allow members of Congress and others in the House to use devices like iPads and BlackBerrys, as long as they use them in the House in the same way they'd use them in an Amtrak quiet car.

"The definition of what is 'disruptive of decorum' will likely evolve over time," writes Brendan Buck in an email, "but of course devices are not to make sound and members are not to be speaking on their phones while on the floor." However, writes Buck, "if a member wants to read an amendment, for example, on their iPad, that would be allowed."

Angry Bird jokes aside, there's a chance that having digital access to the outside world might meaningful change the practice of democracy on the floor of the House of Representatives. We've talked a bit about the idea that giving members the chance to pay partial attention to Congress' official business could reduce the cost of their participation in it, and Daniel Schuman is policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation*, and he sees several potential repercussions from the rule change.

"First, it recognizes that technology is integral to how Members of Congress do business," writes Schuman in an email, about the proposed change. "We've seen Rep. [Charles] Djou [R-HI] use his iPad to read a speech to Congress. If a staff member can send a note to his or her boss on the floor, why not an email?  And paper copies of bills in the Chamber may become less prevalent as the House moves toward making them available electronically for mobile devices."

"It could also become much easier," writes Schuman, "for representatives to see in real time how bills are being amended. This will put more information at the hands of representatives at the crucial moment." Schuman also sounds a note of caution: "Of course, it also may make them more susceptible to outside pressure."

If adopted, the rule change will put the U.S. House of Representatives in line with legislative bodies in places like Australia and the United Kingdom, where members of Parliament regularly use mobile devices like smartphones on their chambers.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.

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