Legislators Barring Electronic Distractions

By: - February 22, 2007 12:00 am

Since 1997, when North Dakota state senators pioneered a ban on the use of electronic devices while official deliberations were underway, the parliamentary rules of more and more legislatures require cell phones, computers and other electronic distractions to be turned off or left at the door.

To keep lawmakers focused on debate and to limit lobbyists’ influence, statehouses from coast to coast are restricting instant messaging and use of those ubiquitous mini-computers found under the thumbs of compulsive e-mailers everywhere.

Maine’s House of Representatives is the latest to join the legislative rebellion against the myriad intrusions of the Digital Age. It acted after a representative observed lobbyists emailing legislators as they debated bills. Also this year, the Oregon Senate has barred “cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices that detract from the decorum” of their august body, copying a rule that was already in place in that state’s House.

In recent years, the Colorado and North Carolina state senates also have banned electronic communications while they conduct official business.

“We’re a deliberative body, and when you’re in [the chamber] you’re supposed to be listening,” said North Carolina Sen. Tony Rand (D).

The North Carolina Senate is considering allowing computers on the chamber floor, but will probably not provide access to the Internet or email, said Tony Caravano, a spokesman for North Carolina Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight. “We don’t want to have 50 different [senators] surfing the Web,” Caravano said.

Thirteen of the more than 70 statehouse chambers that allow computers on the floor already bar Internet access or e-mail during sessions.

Restrictions on email and text messages are just new ways of dealing with a problem that has plagued state legislatures for more than a decade, said Natalie O’Donnell, who charts legislative rules for the National Conference of State Legislatures . At least 30 statehouses limit cell phones or pagers during sessions or committee meetings, according to NCSL.

For example, using a cell phone in the Connecticut Legislature is banned under the same rule as smoking. In the Oklahoma state senate , cell phones, pagers or other noisy electronic gizmos are frowned on in the same way as “profane, obscene or indecent language.”

Penalties for the improper use of electronic devices vary from vague warnings to specific sanctions, and sometimes apply both to those watching the legislature as well as the elected members.

In the Washington state Senate , the presiding officer can order the sergeant at arms to arrest any person that disrupts even committee hearings by using their cell phone. In Colorado, the Senate president can permanently confiscate any electronic device if a member breaks that state’s expansive rules against outside communications.

However, two statehouse chambers have loosened their rules, accepting the reality that the technology is here to stay. The Alabama state Senate has removed its ban on cell phones and now allows them to be used on “silent” mode.

The Connecticut statehouse now allows legislators to check their email during session, since it was practically impossible to keep elected members from using the Internet to use an external email account, such as Yahoo, said Rep. Bob Godfrey (D).

While some of the measures are aimed at keeping lobbyists from gaining even greater access to legislators, at least one lobbyist thinks they are a step in the right direction.

“I didn’t grow up to be a receptionist,” said Maryland uber-lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, explaining that he doesn’t want to be a slave to a cell phone. Bereano, who is perennially one of Maryland’s top 10 lobbyists, said face-to-face interaction is how he does business, and constantly answering a phone or thumb-typing emails can be downright rude.

“These equipment have sprouted up with such pervasiveness, before any rules of etiquette developed,” he said.

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