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Originally published Friday, December 24, 2010 at 9:05 PM

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Texting while legislating? iPads OK'd for House floor

A new rule would relax the complete ban on the use of gadgets such as the iPad, iPhone or BlackBerry on the House floor.

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The iPad is coming to Capitol Hill.

Tucked into new rules proposed by the incoming House Republican majority is one that could fling the chamber — for good or ill — into the 21st century: Members may use an electronic device on the House floor as long as it doesn't "impair decorum."

The new rule would relax the complete ban on the use of gadgets such as the iPad, iPhone or BlackBerry on the House floor. Mobile phones, tablet computers and the burgeoning universe of applications that run on them will be officially available to House members as they conduct business.

Members still may not talk on the phone in the chamber and are supposed to use the devices for official business only, according to a spokesman for the soon-to-be speaker, John Boehner, R-Ohio. But as long as the mute switch is on, lawmakers will be free to tap away.

"Mr. Boehner has deep respect for the institution and its traditions," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the Republicans. "This is not free license to Skype or pay bills online. But we recognize that people consume information electronically these days. It's just silly that the House wouldn't accommodate that."

The decision represents a vivid concession of old-fashioned tradition to new technology. But while the nation's lawmakers will be fully plugged in, they will also be in danger of tuning one another out.

As the Emily Post etiquette website states: "Tapping on a handheld device is OK if it's related to what's being discussed, but taking care of personal business is unprofessional. "

Mobile technology has already started to sneak onto the floors of the House and the Senate. While the rules of the 111th Congress officially banned iPads and other devices from the floor, there has been a "wink and a nod" approach to a lawmaker who takes furtive glances at his BlackBerry, according to a senior Republican aide.

That was obvious last week, when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was seen, head down, tapping out messages as he sat directly behind Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who was giving his farewell address.

In the Senate, a leadership aide said no changes were planned, but the rules committee could look into loosening the rules.

The new rules in the House, first reported by Nancy Scola of techPresident.com, will be clarified next month in a document called the Speaker's Announced Policies. For example, Buck, the Republican spokesman, said the use of the ubiquitous white iPod earphones would probably not be allowed.

The intent, he said, was to let lawmakers look up the text of a bill, check a fact or keep up on the news. Their advisers could also send them important messages. And, especially with the iPad's bigger screen, lawmakers could abandon paper copies of bills in favor of electronic versions.

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