This Old House Gets Some Needed Upgrades

Posted May 12, 2009 at 6:22pm

Eco-friendly paint, recycled ceiling tiles and motion-detector light fixtures adorn the House Science and Technology Committee’s hearing room and staff offices, reflecting the panel’s focus on green initiatives.

The committee is one of 14 that has undergone a wholesale renovation in the past few years. In fact, it had been more than a decade since many chairmen were last able to choose new color schemes, furnishings and technology upgrades.

The Science Committee, for one, ended up with LCD screens (environmentally friendly, of course), individual timers for each Member and new digital audiovisual equipment. Others have chosen from a list of possibilities that include dropdown projector screens, data feeds on the dais, broadcast network feeds and new speakers.

The House Chief Administrative Officer has spent $12 million on the effort since 2003, partnering with the Architect of the Capitol to make the upgrades that have also included rebuilt daises, plasma screens, new microphones, updated data feeds and other 21st-century improvements.

The next step: linking all committee hearing rooms to the House Recording Studio.

CAO Dan Beard is asking Congress for $10.2 million to fund this next phase in fiscal 2010.

The effort, he said at a recent appropriations hearing, will allow Members “to clip from it for YouTube— and other Web sites.

“Such capabilities,— he wrote in his testimony, “are essential in an era of heightened governmental transparency and accountability.—

Some committees have been relying on audio technology installed in the 1970s, according to CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura. There were no standards, he said, so audio and video were “independently installed to varying degrees and maintained by committees.—

That meant cameras were sometimes rolled in on carts or hearings just never made it to a webcast. House officials — and their Senate counterparts — hope to eventually broadcast all hearings remotely, saving staff energy and cost.

They’re also installing systems that make the lives of committee members easier.

For example, the hearing room for the Foreign Affairs Committee now has a screen that automatically displays the order Members show up to a hearing — allowing Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) to more easily follow the rules of order on who can speak next.

Most committees have also installed timers that count down the seconds left for a Member’s questions, replacing the long-standing green light/red light indicator.

With each upgrade, CAO officials have also installed “infrared assistive lighting systems,— which allow the hearing-impaired to listen to committee proceedings. Using light-based technology, sound is enhanced and transmitted to a headset.

And as the CAO puts in such technology, the Architect of the Capitol has been taking advantage of the opportunity to install “dimmable ballasts— in every room, AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said.

The ballasts automatically adjust the light depending on the amount of natural light coming through the windows, she said, so “you don’t have to have the lights on full when it’s a sunny day outside.—