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Congress and the Technology Paradox

May 11, 1999 // 12:00am

While Information Age technologies have enabled Congress and the American people to be better informed, and elected officials to stay in closer communication with their constituents, the same technologies may be making it more difficult for Congress to remain a deliberative body, according to Congressman David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee. Speaking at a May 11 Director's Forum, Dreier termed this development the "technology paradox."

Members of Congress have become inundated with information and with e-mails from their constituents, explained Dreier, which gives them less time for actual deliberations among themselves on the issues of the day. Moreover, the communication demands of the new technologies, from answering e-mail to maintaining sophisticated and up-to-date Web sites, have diverted limited staff resources from issue research to high technology maintenance and operation.

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), in a panel discussion following Dreier's speech, said Congress is a "reactive" rather than a "pro-active" body and is still trying to find its way on how to deal with a myriad of new technology issues, both internally and nationally. Still, she felt encouraged by her observation that "how Congress handles technology has changed so rapidly in just the six years since I've been in the House." The coupling of campaign issues with new media techniques would bring the "final integration" home to the Congress, she predicted.

Eshoo, who represents Silicon Valley and sits on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, agreed with Dreier that "Congress has been changed by the ability of the people to have instantaneous communication with their representatives." But she added that the change is "fortuitous for us in our jobs because it brings us more information from outside the Congress."

Larry Berman, a political science professor at the University of California, Davis, and a current Wilson Center fellow, told the Forum that deliberative democracy can be enhanced in the Information Age "because the new technologies can lead to a more educated and engaged citizenry." Berman said this "is the big challenge. We cannot ignore knowledge; we cannot ignore information. As an educator I see tremendous possibilities." Berman has already demonstrated this by teaching in a virtual classroom on the Internet and by establishing an interactive network for citizens to communicate with state and local government officials on problems and issues of mutual concern.

Wilson Center Director Lee Hamilton joined in the discussion by observing how much had changed since he was first elected to the House in 1964. "Most offices still used manual typewriters, and mimeograph and address-o-graph machines for duplicating and sending out press release and newsletters," said Hamilton. "In my ignorance," he went on, "I did not realize that the House was at the dawning of this new Information Age with its technologies involving all manner of bells, whistles, beepers and buzzers." The "once quiet little backwater known as Capitol Hill," Hamilton concluded, "will never be the same again" -- in terms of both the new machinery and noises that technology brings, and of "the speed, intensity, and volume of communications between Members, their constituents, and sophisticated interest groups."

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