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Keep electronics off the House floor

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mr. Speaker, please don't.

Go ahead, if you must, and cut taxes. Slash spending. Repeal health care. I understand. Elections have consequences. But BlackBerrys and iPads and laptops on the House floor? Reconsider, before it's too late.

The current rules bar the use of a "wireless telephone or personal computer on the floor of the House." The new rules, unveiled last week, add three dangerous words. They prohibit any device "that impairs decorum."

In other words, as long as you've turned down your cellphone ringer and you're not strolling around the floor chatting with your broker or helping the kids with their homework, feel free to tap away.

If the Senate is the world's greatest deliberative body, the House is poised to be the world's greatest tweeting one.

A few upfront acknowledgements. First, I'm not one to throw stones. I have been known to sneak a peek, or 10, at my BlackBerry during meetings. For a time my daughter had my ringtone set to sound like a squawking chicken; when I invariably forgot to switch to vibrate, the phone would cluck during meetings. In short, I have done my share of decorum impairing.

Second, let's not get too dreamy about the House floor. John Boehner, the incoming speaker, once passed out campaign checks from tobacco companies there. One of his former colleagues once came to the chamber with a paper bag on his head to dramatize his supposed embarrassment at fellow lawmakers' overdrafts at the House bank. Worse things have happened on the House floor than a game of Angry Birds - check it out! - on the iPad.

Nonetheless, lines have to be drawn, and the House floor is not a bad place to draw them. Somehow, it has become acceptable to e-mail away in the midst of meetings. Even Emily Post has blessed what once would have been obvious rudeness, ruling that "tapping on a handheld device is okay if it's related to what's being discussed."

The larger war may be lost, but not the battle to keep some remaining space in life free of gadgetry and its distractions. I'm not talking Walden Pond - just a few minutes of living the unplugged life. There are places - dinner table, church, school and, yes, the House floor - where multitasking is inappropriate, even disrespectful.

It's not that everyone is going to be raptly attentive during every moment in those venues. But it's wrong to facilitate and legitimize the inevitable zoning out, and it's healthy to have a few minutes of enforced absence from the addictive world of instantaneous communication.

And there is something particularly depressing in the symbolism of the House floor as atomized democracy, with individual lawmakers cocooned in their techno-bubbles, more immersed in the virtual world than the real-life chamber. I am against the iPad on the House floor for the same reason that I was for letting President Obama keep his BlackBerry. It's a way of maintaining connectivity - the human kind.

The new majority presents the change as a matter of updating "antiquated rules," as GOP transition spokesman Brendan Buck told National Journal's Major Garrett. "Prohibiting the use of all electronic devices on the House floor is an obstacle to efficiency," Buck said.

Perhaps, but efficiency is not always the highest good. What about tradition, dignity, and that fusty concept, decorum? Justice Antonin Scalia has been reading briefs on his iPad, Justice Elena Kagan on her Kindle, but it would be disconcerting to see them taking the bench with their devices.

There is something charming about the Senate as an institution that retains spittoons but bans smartphones. At least in theory: Like teenagers texting under the table at dinner, senators have been known to ignore the rules. As Michael Shear reported in the New York Times, Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry was immersed in his BlackBerry the other day while his colleague Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania delivered a farewell address.

In the House, the incoming majority leader, Virginia Republican Eric Cantor, was caught tapping away on his BlackBerry during the president's address to a joint session of Congress on health-care reform. (Cantor said he was reading the presidential text and taking notes.)

But a previous wink does not require a current nod. Mr. Speaker, put down that iPad.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com


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