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Campus Notebook: Laptops Reappearing in Press Gallery

Scribes Will Be Able to Use Devices for Key Speeches and Important Debates

Good news, Capitol Hill scribes: Laptops are no longer taboo in the House press gallery balcony. All you have to do is ask, the gallery’s superintendent said.

Journalists were met with a welcome surprise when Superintendent Jerry Gallegos allowed them to bring laptops into the gallery — which is above the Speaker’s rostrum — during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last week. 

The “spur-of-the-moment decision” went so well, Gallegos said, that he will allow it for future special events, such as major speeches or policy battles of health-care-reform proportions. But reporters have to express the interest, he said.

“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”

It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.

“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”

Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”

A few rules first, though: Don’t plug in, mute the volume and enter with a full battery.

“The only thing I was concerned about at that point was heavy typists, and that didn’t happen. There was no one in there just banging away,” Gallegos said. “I’m pleased with it and for the most part I think the media was pleased with it.”

The next step is installing more power outlets, but because the gallery is only renovated every 20 years, that move is far off.

“As much as I’d love to be able to get power in there, I don’t know that it’ll happen anytime soon,” he said. “I’m just hoping they’ll come up with better batteries.”

Congress Gets Social

Though the Internet has increased citizen participation in the public policy process, staffers think it has degraded the quality of constituents’ communication with Members.

Social media, meanwhile, is viewed mostly as a one-way communication tool on Capitol Hill, useful for blasting out a Member’s viewpoint to the public, but less so for soliciting public opinion.

Those are the results of an anonymous survey of staffers released last week by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group that advises Members and staff about how to efficiently use their resources.

Almost all staffers said the Internet has increased constituent communication with Members and made that correspondence easier. But nearly two-thirds of the 260 staffers surveyed said that the Internet has reduced the quality of the messages they receive.

Only 41 percent said the Internet helps increase constituent understanding of what goes on in Washington, down from 55 percent when the group surveyed staffers in 2004.

Facebook seems to be winning out in the social media war, as about three-quarters of staffers find it an important tool to communicate Members’ viewpoints to the public. Slightly less think the same of YouTube, while just over half said Twitter is important.

MySpace is basically irrelevant on the Hill, according to the survey.

All platforms get lower marks when it comes to listening to constituents. Eight percent of staffers said that Facebook is “very important” for understanding constituents’ views, and 4 percent said the same of both Twitter and YouTube.

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