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iPad in the House! Congress May Embrace the Tablet

When Henry Cuellar took to the Speaker’s podium at the United States House of Representatives with an iPad in his hand recently, the congressman had no idea he was accelerating a course of change in the august body.

“If you look at available technology, properly leveraged it can make us a more efficient Congress,” Rep. Cuellar (D-Texas) told iPadNewsDaily in a phone interview. “There is so much immediate information we can gather with an iPad.”

Imagine, said Cuellar, being able to use the device for legislative purposes like downloading a bill or searching for points in an amendment that are being discussed on the floor in real-time. It can mean the difference between introducing fact or hearsay.

It seems representatives aren’t always straight with the mountains of information presented on the floor. “Just from the standpoint of making more effective and efficient decisions the technology is worth having,” said the 55-year-old, third-term congressman.

No tech allowed

However, for decades the House has shied away from new technologies, instead opting for more staid traditions while keeping the chamber a technology-free zone. Laptops, cell phones and other communication devices are forbidden in the chamber — and for good reason, Cuellar said. The U.S. House has 435 representatives and when the floor is at capacity, distractions come easily.

But what about the iPad? It’s not a laptop or a cell phone. The tablet isn’t as easy to peg as those technologies. And that is precisely how the congressman found himself in the middle of a minor maelstrom when he was spotted on C-SPAN with the device sitting on the Speaker’s podium.

“I’m not using it to play Angry Birds,” joked Cuellar, who was called upon to perform Speaker pro tempore duties that day by House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California). Instead, he said, the device provides an opportunity to have information brought to the floor in a readable, usable format.

Cuellar uses the Congress in Your Pocket app to keep track of votes from other members, as well as learn a bit more about their biographical histories. “I like to use it to know something about the person speaking; what college he went to; was the member a prosecutor before becoming a representative,” said Cuella.

He also uses the teleprompter app ProPrompter for speeches and says he reads several different publications daily first thing in the morning using the iPad including Politics Daily, The Hill, Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times and the Associated Press.

“As the Speaker pro tempore, sometimes I’m on the podium for three or four hours straight. I can use the iPad to receive important information,” Cuellar said. “I understand and respect the traditions and decorum of the House, and I assume other members would do same thing with this type of technology.”

[Read also "How to Buy an iPad: Picking the Right Model"]

iPad rules

While some congressional traditionalists criticized Cuellar for bringing his iPad to the floor, the House Parliamentarian John Sullivan ruled the congressman didn’t break House rules by using the iPad, and further advised the speaker that if an iPad is not being used to play sound or as a transmitting device, it be allowed.

And now, it seems, the debate over the famous Congressional iPad has generated enough interest to cause Congress to lighten up on its anti-technology rules.

The incoming House Republican majority, led by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), has added into new rules a proposal to allow certain electronic devices, including the iPad on the House floor as long as it doesn’t “impair decorum.”

“If we are telling federal agencies to be more efficient with information, certainly we can do the same in the House,” said Cuellar.