Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The Senate is a body mired in traditions — one of the most noticeable being how it has rejected many advances in modern technology in favor of still conducting much of its business via paper and pen.
But Majority Leader Harry Reid is open to changing all that.
“Maybe someday we could set up a system similar to what they have in the House,” Reid said during a meeting with the Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board Tuesday. “I wouldn’t be opposed to that.”
The differing roles of modern technology in the House of Representatives and Senate are on starkest display during each chamber’s votes.
When a vote is called in the House, the wall of the gallery above the Speaker’s chair lights up with 435 names. Lawmakers jostle each other as they head for electronic boxes located on the backs of the rows of chairs, where they swipe a card with a magnetic strip to identify themselves to the box before entering their “Yea,” “Nay,” or “Pres[ent]” vote with the touch of a finger.
“In the House, they just push a button,” Reid said.
As they vote, green Ys (for “yea”) and red Ns (for “nay”) appear on the brightly-lit projection board next to each lawmaker’s name, while two electronic scoreboards at either end of the chamber keep a running tally of where the vote stands.
In comparison, as Reid put it, the Senate is “pretty old-fashioned.”
When a vote in the Senate is called, a member of the parliamentarian’s staff reads out the names of all 100 senators alphabetically while senators mill into the chamber. Some of them line up at the front desk, where another staffer waits with a pencil and a long strip of paper upon which all 100 senators are listed alphabetically — Republican names are backgrounded in red while Democratic names are shaded in blue — to check off the yea or nay votes in the appropriate column next to their names. Senators indicate their vote by either whispering it to the parliamentary staff, calling it out in a loud voice, or by catching the eye of one of the staffers and giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.
The discrepancy in how business is conducted extends past the chamber floor. While taking pictures of either chamber from the galleries is strictly verboten, members of the press can bring their laptops into the gallery seats overlooking the chamber of the House to track the proceedings. Over in the Senate, attempting the same is effectively asking to be thrown out — the only laptops present in the chamber belong to a few members of the parliamentary staff responsible for keeping a record of all the activity that takes place on the Senate floor. Reporters have to rely on pen and paper.
But just because Reid is open to changing the 21st century Senate’s relationship with 20th century technology doesn’t mean it’s going to happen any time soon.
The Senate isn’t just a body of Luddites; there are reasons, Reid explained, why its members prefer their seemingly antiquated ways.
“The reason people kind of hesitate doing that is there’s a lot of vote-counting that takes place right at those votes, as people mill around,” Reid said. “Halfway through (the vote), they re-count the vote, and by then you kind of know where the vote’s going … it gives you an idea of who you need, to go twist arms and stuff.”
Voting counting has been Reid’s forte — his Senate Democrats have the best track record of keeping their ranks together of late, and Reid often points out how House Speaker John Boehner has had problems recently keeping his Republicans together on the House floor.
There’s also the relative matters of crowd control. One hundred senators can record their votes in 15 minutes — the standard length of time devoted to a vote — but doing the same with 435 representatives is a near organizational impossibility. In fact, shortening the time spent trying to corral representatives to a vote is the main reason why members of the House started pushing for an electronic voting system in the first place, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.
The House’s embrace of electronics was a long time in coming. Some members proposed electronic or mechanized voting as early as the 1910s and 1920s, but the chamber didn’t actually get such a system until the 1970s.
If that’s the timeline for such ideas to mature in Congress, it doesn’t bode too well for a technological revolution in the Senate anytime soon.
“Maybe we could do better,” Reid said, “but at this stage, I don’t see it changing in the near future.”