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Laptops should be allowed in Senate chambers

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:07 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Missouri Senate has taken a technological step back to the dark ages by passing on the debate of whether to allow laptops in the Senate Chamber.

Even more incredulous is the proposed banning of hand-held devices such as phones as well. As the Missourian put it: “At the center of the debate was the question of what was better: senators in the chamber who are on the computer and not necessarily paying attention or senators who leave the chamber to conduct business electronically and therefore miss debate.” An Associated Press article that ran in the Missourian on Jan. 27 said, “Supporters say computers could allow senators to work more efficiently. But opponents say computers could detract from tradition, lead to ethical lapses and allow lobbyists and staffers to send senators messages during debate.” I say a good lobbyist worth his weight could get to a senator whether he had a laptop or not. It’s their jobs, after all.

KOMU reported on Feb. 3: “The proposed rule change would have let Senators use laptops as long as they closed the screens while debating.” That is more than reasonable enough.

As "For Shame!" as it might be for me to say, think of these senators as a bunch of kids in a classroom. They are being asked to pay attention, raise their hand and give input and follow what’s going on. Now, college students have been allowed to bring laptops to class for years, and much to the dismay of some of these senators, we are still pumping out students who managed to pass these classes with flying colors, despite the fact they have been using a laptop.

I rarely went to class without my faithful Mac. Sure, I checked my e-mail, instant messaged buddies, stalked my friends on Facebook and read the New York Times. However, I still took my notes, paid attention to lecture and graduated with good grades. If we can allow untrustworthy college students to use a laptop while teaching them the fundamentals they will need to have in the work force, surely we could allow educated, responsible adults in a group often referred to as the General Assembly’s “upper chamber” a little access to Wi-Fi.

If a student were to leave the classroom to check their e-mail or print out notes, most professors would be all over them like my grandfather at a Golden Corral buffet. Students would miss valuable information. Yet the Senate is effectively saying it is better to let their members leave crucial hearings and meetings to conduct business they could easily finish while in chambers.

We do have this well-thought-out rebuttal by Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who opposes laptop use in chambers, “... I'd never use (a computer) in a bathtub where I'd electrocute myself … because there's a time and a place for everything. The bathtub is not the place for a computer and neither is the Senate chamber." You can hear this rousing speech by Nodler on YouTube, which is boring enough to make me wonder how they have gotten by this long without computers.

If you are trying to conduct senatorial business in your bathtub, Senator Nodler, I commend you. That’s a level of dedication I think goes above and beyond the call of duty. But I would rather have my senators in chambers looking at LOLcats and updating their MySpace profile than out of the room missing voting and debates.

I should hope by now these senators are capable of multitasking. Although the Senate chamber might not be the appropriate place for laptops according to Senator Nodler, the House of Representatives seems to be doing all right. They currently allow both laptops and hand-held devices. The difference between a classroom and Senate chambers becomes apparent in the willingness and unwillingness to embrace technology. Some of the Senate members aren’t just opposed to technology pop ups in the chambers or bathtub, but in life in general.

“I don’t like them under any circumstances,” Nodler told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a stereotypical resistant-to-technology sort of way. If Republican Nodler had read the Post-Dispatch, he might have changed his tune: “If approved, the measure could create incentive to have more senators on the floor during debate. That could also be one reason why Democrats, the minority party, would oppose the move, hoping to occasionally catch the majority party lacking votes to block amendments or procedural moves.”

The session to decide the fate of laptops in chambers lasted two hours before reaching a stalemate and being withdrawn. I wonder how many people walked out to check their e-mail and conduct more pressing matters during that time?

Tracy Barnes graduated from MU in 2008 with degrees in journalism and English. She is a former copy editor and multimedia editor for the Missourian. She can be contacted at tracylbarnes@gmail.com.


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