Skype Capability May Be Part of House Tech Upgrades

Posted March 16, 2011 at 5:55pm

House lawmakers may soon have access to Skype, an expanded wireless Internet network and a new central website for the chamber.

Those are some of the goals of a new initiative announced Wednesday by Speaker John Boehner that aims to make the House more user-friendly. Fittingly, Boehner announced the move in an e-mail statement and a YouTube video.

“Whether it’s making information easier to find, using digital media to make each of us more accessible or cutting costs by ending antiquated ways of doing business, we’re ready to bring Congress into the 21st century,” the Ohio Republican said in the video.

Boehner chose Rep. Jason Chaffetz to lead the House Technology Operations Team. The House Chief Administrative Officer equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August, but Chaffetz said his first priority is to expand the network to allow wider connectivity.

“The rapid expansion of Wi-Fi for both Members and the public is of obvious concern and can be dealt with immediately,” the Utah Republican said in an interview.

Chaffetz, who during the House GOP transition was tapped to be part of a team that made recommendations to leadership about the chamber’s operations, said he also wants to help make more functional and easier for constituents to use.

“It’s been years since the site itself has been refreshed, and so we want to make the proceedings of the House as open and transparent as possible,” he said.

That’s also a concern for Rep. Bob Latta, co-chairman of the Republican New Media Caucus, who has also been selected to join the technology group.

“It’s got a lot of information there, but the question is if you can find the information readily,” the Ohioan said. “We can get more information out there so people don’t have to read about it, they can see it right then.”

Latta suggested making more prominent on the page a link to the Members’ votes database and allowing users to watch hearings on a split screen so they can view multiple committees at once.

Chaffetz said he also wants to recommend protocols for how and when committees share information online. For instance, the House could make committee documents searchable online, he said.

Chaffetz said he’d also like to look at allowing Members to use Skype.

House rules don’t allow offices to use peer-to-peer software or file-sharing programs. Chaffetz said Skype is banned out of concern that offices’ records could be stolen or that hackers could surreptitiously access office Web cameras.

But Boehner has been a proponent of the social media program since before he took over the House. In April when he was still Minority Leader, Boehner co-signed a letter to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asking her to allow offices to use Skype, which he called an “increasingly relevant communication tool for Americans already widely used in the private sector.”

While GOP leaders have not revoked the ban on file-sharing software, Boehner’s spokesman indicated something might be in the works.

“Not yet,” Michael Steel said of permitting Skype, “but we’re trying to encourage the use of popular, low-cost video conferencing solutions like Skype and working on a solution for the House that is safe and effective for our Members and their constituents.”

A GOP aide said the group is looking into allowing Members and staff to use Skype on laptops connected only to the wireless Internet network that the House provides to the public, rather than the chamber’s wired connection.

Besides Chaffetz and Latta, the team will include House Administration Chairman Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), GOP Conference Vice Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), and Reps. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

Chaffetz said he also wants to enlist the help of Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who before joining Congress made his fortune founding several Web-based businesses, including a Web-hosting company. But all Members are being encouraged to pitch in, Chaffetz said.

The team has been meeting privately since January, but it will hold a bipartisan forum today at 2 p.m. in 1310 Longworth House Office Building, where Members can offer suggestions about how to modernize