House Rings In New Year With Smart Phones
JENNIFER LUDDEN, Host:
MATTHEW WASNIEWSKI: 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?
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?
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.
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?
WASNIEWSKI: 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.
WASNIEWSKI: 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?
WASNIEWSKI: 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.
WASNIEWSKI: It does.
LUDDEN: Thank you.
WASNIEWSKI: Thank you, and Happy New Year.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.