To Know More, and Still More

January 10, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

Washington -- When Congress comes back January 25, it will plunge into the madcap pace that propels scores of worthy but fatigued members into premature retirement or, occasionally, seriously bizarre personal antics. What Congress lacks is time for repose and reflection, a need that perhaps warrants an obligatory day off per week for study and contemplation as an antidote to legislative burnout.

Instead, some of our pre-eminent wizards have a different prescription for Capitol Hill. Busybodies on the Olympian peaks of the high-tech establishment are urging Congress to dive further into the so-called information age, over and above the 20,000 computers that now serve 100 senators, 435 representatives, and 40,000 staff members, and equip itself with the latest generation of electronic nerve-wrackers.

These would include video conferencing, desk-top terminals on the House and Senate floors, and even electronic ''kiosks'' scattered about the hallways and grounds of Capitol Hill to assure that no one working for the Congress is more than a step away from hot news.

These are all needed, says the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government, to enable the legislators to grasp ''the exciting opportunities that can help Congress to be more effective in conducting its legislative role and to be better understood by the public.''

The 22-member commission, staked by the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation, bears the names of eminent figures in science, industry, higher education and government, including Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg, former President Jimmy Carter, Bobby Inman, the incoming Secretary of Defense, and Jerome Wiesner, president emeritus of MIT.

After five years in which it proffered advice on subjects ranging from foreign aid to science in the courts, the commission expired last fall. Several reports are still in the pipeline, including the advice for Congress, ''Opportunities for the Use of Information Resources and Advanced Technologies in Congress.''

The commission's electronic euphoria notwithstanding, the reality of life on Capitol Hill is that members and staff are drenched with information, but lack time to sift through it for knowledge and understanding. The information deluge is awesome, starting with conventional press and TV news and proceeding to mountains of specialized reports prepared by lobbying groups and congressional committee staffs.

And then there's an unceasing volume of reports and analyses produced by sources little known to the general public, Congress's in-house research agencies: the General Accounting Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service. Rare is the subject on which one or another of these agencies cannot field a highly qualified specialist. Congress does make heavy use of them, sending, for example, some 600,000 requests a year for information to the 800 staff members of the Congressional Research Service.

In its misguided adulation of electronic solutions for Congress' ceaseless progression toward nervous collapse, the commission report touts electronic conferencing as an ''innovative capability'' for holding committee hearings.

But when the congressional calendar is already overwhelmed with more hearings than members can possibly attend, the introduction of a new way to hold hearings merely compounds the problem. At almost any committee hearing in Congress these days, many members arrive late, explaining that they were delayed by another hearing, and leave early, explaining that yet another hearing requires their presence.

Legislative reform requires fewer but better focused and prepared hearings -- increasingly rare in the hurly-burly of Capitol Hill. In accord with Parkinson's Law, the arrival of teleconferencing will merely assure a proliferation of activities to consume the new capabilities.

As for the electronic kiosks, with push-button capability for getting the latest, anywhere on Capitol Hill: Surely there should be some escape from the legislative battlefield.

For better and worse, Congress is not an easily reformable body. is doubtful that the legislators will swallow the electronic prescription, since they understand that information is not lacking about anything on Capitol Hill.

Their real need is time to think. The big problem is they're too harried and frantic to think their way to that recognition and do something about it.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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