Senate nixes laptops on floor
By Courtney Macavinta
November 5, 1997, 11:50 a.m. PT
The Senate Rules Committee said today that members' notepads on the
floor may not include disk drives and keyboards.
Despite pleas from freshman Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) to have the
right to tote his laptop into chambers, those who pass the laws of
conduct for the Senate shot him down on grounds that sacred traditions
supersede the value of digital briefcases.
"I don't want to appear to be standing in the way of progress and
technology. This committee will continue to wrestle with the
trade-offs of allowing members to take advantage of new technologies
while preserving the history and decorum of the Senate chamber," Sen.
Wendell Ford (D- Kentucky) said during committee hearings on the issue
"It appears that this request is a little ahead of its time," he
added. Ford voted against allowing members' use of laptops on the
The committee's vote is the final word on the issue for now, but
another political body deeply rooted in custom, the British Cabinet,
also is considering the use of laptops. The cabinet seems more
receptive to the idea, but its decision won't help Enzi. (See related
Enzi insists he wasn't out to "destroy the Senate" when he made the
request this summer but simply wants to use the tools that help him
better serve his constituency. An accountant by trade, he used a
laptop during sessions when he was a Wyoming state senator.
"The laptop was a necessary tool for me, since you do not have any
staff in Wyoming. I found I could take notes and write speeches, and
during debate I could write down the issues that I need to respond to.
I could look up documents that support that and be sure I had the
facts right," Enzi said in a past interview.
Members of the rules committee were unmoved by his explanations. Some
argued that allowing laptops, even those disconnected from outside
networks, would take away the spontaneity of statements made on the
"If we are going into high-tech, we could also have electronic voting
devices," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) during a committee
hearing in July. "There are a lot of things we could do, but I do
think the traditions of the Senate are important, and I would not want
to go to electronic voting devices...[or] have people reading from
computers or appearing to type on the floor, either."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) agreed, and rejected Enzi's
proposal. "Most people wouldn't allow their sons or daughters to bring
their laptops to the dinner table. The Senate floor is reserved for
discussion between senators and for votes," her spokesman, Jim Hock,
said today. "If a member wants to use a laptop, they can bring it to
the cloak room directly off the floor."
After a heated debate last week, Enzi's staff was sure the fate of
laptops on the floor already was sealed. Still, as someone who
relishes in the traditions of the Senate, Enzi contends that in this
case, technology is not a threat to customs.
"I am relatively certain that if you stay there late at night and it
is really quiet, you can still hear the debates from the past century
that have gone on there," he said. "The floor is really steeped in
tradition. But I don't think that a laptop computer I use to take
notes is going to destroy the Senate any more than the switch from
quill pens to ballpoints."