Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996

New Congressional Network Coming

An Interview of Vernon Ehlers by Amelia DeLoach

Almost three years ago, Michigan Congressman Vernon Ehlers, a retired physicist and college professor, won a special election that sent him to Washington. When he first walked into his Capitol Hill office, he discovered that the Congressional computer system made it more difficult for him to send an email message next door than it did to send it 600 miles away. More surprising was that some offices still used typewriters for major correspondence.

A little over a year after Ehlers arrived in Washington, House Speaker Newt Gingrich appointed him to spearhead the effort to revamp the House's computer system that includes 12,000 computers and 1,100 file servers. The Speaker's directive wasn't terribly detailed but his point was well made. Gingrich said that "he wanted a good system and that I could not be too bold for him. He wanted me to think well into the future," recalls Ehlers during a telephone interview. Heading the design effort for a legislative body's network was "old hat" for Ehlers who had handled the same responsibility for the Michigan State Senate during his tenure there.

In an --interview with CMC Magazine, Ehlers discusses some of the issues surrounding the new Congressional network that should be operational by September 1996. He explains some of the considerations that went into developing the legislative system, what the public can expect from the system, and how he thinks the online medium will affect the democratic process.

Ehlers also offers his views on how some citizens use computer-mediated communication to express their views to Congress. The medium, he contends, will allow citizens to become better informed on the issues and will continue to improve Congress' contact with its constituency. "I believe this is a very exciting time to be in government and to see the direct impact of technology on the operation of the government. I always find it amusing, and sometimes aggravating, that people claim that Congress is out of touch with the people. I don't think that Congress has ever been more in touch with the people of this nation than they are now," he says.

Technology, Ehlers contends, is the reason behind citizens awareness of the issues. "One great step forward was taken a number of years ago in the development of the telephone. When you think back, just 150 years ago citizens had no idea what was going on in Congress--even the newspapers could be weeks or even months behind because the mail was very slow. You literally sent your people off to Washington to study the issues and you didn't know what they had done until they came back to their districts and reported it. With the development of the telephone and, of course, the wire services, people began to get their news more rapidly. Then came TV. With the computer, citizens are going to be instantaneously aware of almost every aspect, every decision." [TOC]

Amelia DeLoach ( is the editor of this month's special issue.

Copyright © 1996 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

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