On a recent Tuesday morning, seven high school students look up, bleary-eyed from their desks at the day’s featured speaker, Ohio Rep. Bob Ney (R), seated across a long table with a stack of prepared notes and flanked by several aides.
After Ney runs down his résumé for the students, they fire off their first question — about education costs. Ney answers succinctly, then moves on through a score of other inquiries.
While the exchange is a fairly standard one, it isn’t taking place in a stuffy school auditorium; its participants are separated by a distance of more than 300 miles and are communicating entirely via video conference.
As the technology, which allows users to communicate voice and video data remotely, has improved in recent years, it has become increasingly popular among House Members.
According to statistics provided by the House Administration Committee, more than three dozen or so lawmakers have used their Members’ Representational Allowance to purchase the systems, which begin at about $5,000.
Proponents of the system praise its practicality, asserting that it allows Members to meet with constituents during periods when lawmakers are away from their districts, or when residents are unable to visit Capitol Hill.
Ney’s session allowed him to speak simultaneously with students in multiple Belmont County, Ohio, high schools who had recently participated in the “Close-Up Program,” which brings students to visit the nation’s capital.
House committees, about half of which have obtained the video conferencing systems with typical investments of $15,000 to $20,000, have similarly used the technology to arrange interviews with witnesses who may be situated in remote locations, or to save on the expense of travel.
Other House offices said they use the systems less often for communicating, but rather to connect staff on Capitol Hill with the districts.
“It makes things easier. … It’s like a virtual conference,” said Russ Levsen, a spokesman for Rep. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.).
The office purchased the equipment at the end of the 108th Congress to coordinate meetings between the three state offices the South Dakota at-large Member maintains in addition to her Capitol Hill office.
“We saw it as a tool to help us better communicate internally, and ultimately to better serve our constituents,” Levsen added.
While the video conference system is now used primarily with staff, Levsen said the office is working to use the technology to communicate with constituents as well.
“It just helps us serve our constituents better because there’s a more direct connection,” Levsen said, adding that a face on the screen is “more personal than a disembodied voice on speaker phone.”
While the video conferencing units, which work over a variety of mediums including the Internet and Integrated Services Digital Network, are available in many school districts and public libraries, House officials tout the fact that the systems are also widely available in private locations, such as copy shops and hotels.
Tennessee Rep. Zack Wamp (R), who has used the system for a range of reasons including constituent meetings and formal conferences, asserts the technology works best in a formal setting with few distractions.
“I think video conferencing is a great way to meet with constituents, to meet with people,” Wamp said.
But, he added, in an informal setting, such as a well-attended staff meeting, the video technology can present too many distractions.
“I’m not as comfortable with it as I thought I’d be,” he admitted. “In a meeting with staff, it works better in a conference call.”