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House Rings In New Year With Smart Phones
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House Rings In New Year With Smart Phones

Technology

House Rings In New Year With Smart Phones

House Rings In New Year With Smart Phones
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The new rules for the House of Representatives change a longstanding ban on electronic devices on the House floor. Now, members may use an electric device so long as it doesn't "impair decorum." Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks with House historian, Matthew Wasniewski.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

When Republicans won back a majority in the House this fall, they also won the right to set new rules for the floor of the lower chamber. The regulations addressed transparency, parliamentary procedure and gadgetry.

For the first time, electronics from iPads to laptops will be permitted on the House floor. That is, as long as they don't impede decorum.

What that means exactly remains to be seen. But it's not the first time Congress will change its ways to accommodate a change in the times.

To put this in perspective we're joined in the studio by House historian Matthew Wasniewski.

Welcome.

Mr. MATTHEW WASNIEWSKI (Historian): Thank you.

LUDDEN: It seems to me we've already had sightings of members of Congress, you know, sneaking peeks at their devices in the chamber. What have the rules been, and how have they been followed until now?

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: Well, in 1995 a rule went into effect banning all electronic devices on the floor. But 2003 that rule was modified to specifically say no wireless telephones or personal computers. And the technology has kind of caught up to us. And so this rule will allow members to bring other electronic devices and computers as long as they don't impeded decorum, as you mentioned.

LUDDEN: And who decides that?

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: Well, that's up to the discretion of the speaker, what will impede decorum. It's kind of a fine line to walk.

LUDDEN: Well, the House has walked this line before, going back a bit in time. Tobacco was an issue, something else that people have found addictive like their BlackBerrys. Tell us how the chambers dealt with tobacco.

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: When it comes to smoking and tobacco, Congress was way ahead of the curve. The House banned smoking in the chamber and in the galleries while the House was in session in 1871.

LUDDEN: What made it an issue then?

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: Well, at that time the House chamber, which is the modern chamber, we didn't have air conditioning. We didn't have ventilation like we do now. And smoke was a real issue for members. There were a number of members who complained about smoke and the ill effects on their health.

But it was limited to just the chamber. Members could smoke in the Speaker's Lobby. They could smoke in other places in the Capitol. In 2007, Speaker Nancy Pelosi banned smoking on the House side of the Capitol.

LUDDEN: In the early 20th century the House had to adapt to another trend -women in Congress. I take it some thought that women's clothing would impede decorum.

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: Well, it wasn't so much that the House expected that. Some of the women members, the early women members, policed themselves. The very first generation of women, including a very influential one named Mary Norton from New Jersey, she believed women, if they were going to integrate and attain positions of power within the institution, they couldn't make themselves stand out.

And so some of the things that she would do, she would insists on being called congressman. And a lot of the early women did this. She would not get on an elevator if a male representative allowed her to go ahead. She would decline. And she also would sit on the floor and she would watch women come onto the floor. And if they were wearing dresses she believed were too frilly or if they tried to wear a hat on the floor, she would go up and say something to them.

LUDDEN: As historian then of the House, let me ask you what perhaps has been the worst breach of decorum in the chamber?

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: Members in February of 1858 were debating a bill called the Lecompton Constitution, which was a pro-slavery constitution for the Kansas territory. And the fight broke out along sectional lines.

And we had 50 members in the well of the House, brawling. We had members standing on desks cheering the fighters on. We had a member come down the aisle with a ceramic spittoon ready to whack someone over the head. The speaker is furiously gaveling the place to order, but no one's listening.

The only thing that stopped it was when a member from Wisconsin named John Bowie Knife Potter was sitting atop Charles Barksdale from Mississippi and he went to grab his hair and he ripped off a hairpiece. And he stands up to the entire chamber and says, look, I've scalped him. And the whole place breaks up in laughter.

But it really spoke to the sectional tensions that were going on. I mean, afterwards members are toasting themselves in the chamber and everyone's laughing it off. Alexander Stephens from Georgia, who would soon become the Confederate vice president, wrote home and said I don't know how much longer the Union can last under these circumstances.

LUDDEN: Well, I guess it makes things today look just downright civil.

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: It does.

LUDDEN: Matthew Wasniewski is the historian for the House of Representatives and joined us in our studios.

Thank you.

Mr. WASNIEWSKI: Thank you, and Happy New Year.

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