Sen. Ted Stevens may have deep-sixed his Slashdot street cred when he described the Internet as “a series of tubes,” but the 84-year-old Alaska Republican is hardly a technological Luddite.
Stevens calls himself a “slave” to his BlackBerry Curve, and if you have seen him shuffling through the halls of Congress, you know exactly what he means. Eschewing handrails and escalators, he makes his daily rounds, oblivious to most everything but the words displayed in jumbo type on the tiny screen before him.
Sharing a hallway with Stevens can be a hazardous endeavor — and Congress watchers say that’s the least of the risks.
People who mull such things are beginning to ask whether Capitol Hill’s BlackBerry addiction — seven out of 10 members and staffers have one — is putting too much power into the hands of small groups of well-connected constituents, exacerbating partisan polarization and snuffing out whatever’s left of Washington’s political sanctuary removed from the parochial concerns back home.
While average citizens still reach out to their elected representatives via letters or e-mails to a general inbox, donors and friends are more likely to have a member’s personal e-mail address — and with it, a virtual hotline to the member’s hip.
“If you’re the congressman who comes from a community that’s pretty liberal or conservative, ... the kind of constant input you’re getting from [linked-in constituents] — it’s just going to lock you in tighter and tighter to your preconceived positions,” says former Rep. Mickey Edwards, who now lectures on government at Princeton University. “It works toward more polarization.”
Steve Frantzich, a professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy who has written numerous books on technology and politics, says handheld usage “reduces George Washington’s ‘cooling saucer’ by allowing members less time for deliberation and more tendency to respond without much thinking.”
In words of wisdom that echo far beyond politics, Frantzich says having a BlackBerry makes a member of Congress “always ‘on,’ with little downtime or little ability to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
“They’re not really free agents anymore,” adds former House historian Raymond Smock. “They’re captives of whoever contacts them next.”
Congress glommed onto the BlackBerry fairly quickly when the CAO’s telecommunications department started widely distributing the devices after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the House of Representatives alone, 8,239 members and staffers now use them.
In ways big and small, the BlackBerry has changed the way Congress does business.
In April, when there was a dispute over a resolution welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Washington, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) used his BlackBerry to e-mail his chief of staff from his seat at the Papal Mass at the Washington Nationals’ ballpark. The order: to remove language that had offended Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Brownback, a BlackBerry hound, extols the efficiency of the device, the meetings it cuts down on and the workload it cuts through.
“I do see it as distracting at times,” Brownback confesses. “When you’re in meetings and you get hit with a BlackBerry message and you get so trained to respond to the jolt at your side, I see it as distracting people, and in a way that is not very mannerly.”
You can, of course, turn it off, he says. He, of course, never does.
Stevens says he’s unaware of many senators who directly message other senators, but Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who was part of the first freshman class to be issued the gadgets, says that memberto-member interfacing is becoming routine in the House.
The Republican Conference chairman notes that his party’s leadership has begun to tap into this trend by sending certain key materials directly to members each morning, bypassing press secretaries and chiefs of staff.
While Stevens — like a lot of users — can seem shut off from the outside world when he has his eyes locked onto the device, Putnam says the handhelds have actually broadened the horizons for a lot of his colleagues. The BlackBerry has increased the “comfort level” with the Internet in general, he says, “so you have members talking about what’s on Drudge or Town Hall or Red State.”
The devices, he says, have “dragged members out of the Dark Ages and into the information age. You now have members conversant about blogs, online news sites, signed up for breaking news alerts. So they’re actually less insulated today ... than they were before BlackBerry.”
Edwards, who served in Congress from 1977 until 1993, says a little insulation can be a good thing.
“We have been moving inexorably over the years closer towards a pure democracy,” he laments. “It’s now about quick responses to whatever constituents want in the moment. Congress was supposed to be a time to get away, think deeply, get your own information. ... You have all these pressures now to be more responsive to the will of the moment, be it informed or not informed. As we move more towards pure democracy, constant input, inescapable input, with no respite, I think that’s a bad thing.”
Adds Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Congress Project: “You don’t want members themselves to become so efficient that they are blocking our possibility of deliberations and having discussions.”
Efficient or just detached?
Brownback says that it’s all but standard practice for members to be furtively “thumbing” away during Senate proceedings, even though electronic devices are prohibited on the floor. The House currently allows PDA usage, which has raised at least the hypothetical possibility that representatives could be communicating directly with lobbyists while voting or debating.
Old hands such as former Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) speak fondly of a time when members of Congress survived without a CPU on their hip. Members made to-do lists, set aside time each day to return messages, memorized facts before taking to the speaker’s well and even had actual face-to-face meetings with constituents and colleagues.
He wonders what we have gained in exchange.
“You don’t see a period of time when members, because of that added efficiency, have been able to produce any legislative solutions to crises facing the country,” Panetta says.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein looks ahead rather than back and says he’s “seriously” concerned about what the BlackBerry may yet bring.
"Before long, you get requests to have a virtual Congress,” he says. “Why even bother to come to Washington when we can do it over the BlackBerry or do it with teleconferencing? You still need to have face-to-face interaction.”