Mike Enzi, a lonely personal tech trailblazer

Wyoming Republican tried unsuccessfully to drag Senate floor operations into the 21st century

Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi does some reading on his Kindle in 2010 as he walks through the Senate tunnel.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi does some reading on his Kindle in 2010 as he walks through the Senate tunnel. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 2, 2021 at 10:30am

ANALYSIS — Sometime this week, as the debate over the fiscal 2022 budget resolution begins on the Senate floor, a senator will ask for permission to use a calculator to assist in the deliberations.

That such a motion is required is a relic of Senate regulations going back decades that generally prohibit the use of electronic devices in conducting Senate business. 

Coincidentally, the Senate just lost one of its great advocates for expanding the use of technology on the floor, a place that still thrives on printed documents and visual aids in the form of poster boards on easels.

While there have been efforts to loosen the rules, there was perhaps no more consistent proponent of modernizing floor business than the late Sen. Michael B. Enzi, who died on July 26 at age 77 after a tragic bicycle accident.

The Wyoming Republican, who retired and left office in January, could often be seen walking the halls of the Capitol complex with eyes glued to a Kindle, which became his reading device of choice. And if the rules would ever have allowed it, the former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee surely would have delivered floor speeches by reading from the device, rather than off sheets of paper.

“I started this effort in the last century and I’ll continue into the next if that’s what it takes to adapt this Senate rule to the times,” Enzi said in a statement not long before his retirement.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., was a kindred spirit of Enzi’s when it came to trying to drag Senate floor operations into the early 21st century, and an aide said he would continue the effort.

Laptops are used on the floor by a small cadre of floor operations staffers to help keep track of the proceedings. But, when a surprise amendment appears, there is no way for senators to read it on the floor unless they either huddle around the original text or wait for a staffer to collect photocopies.

This antiquated system is also a challenge to transparency, because it is often the case that the Senate may actually begin voting on long lists of amendments — as they will during the anticipated budget resolution vote-a-rama — without the legislative text of amendments being accessible to the public in real time.

The process of tracking down contentious amendments during a budget debate sometimes involves phone calls, text messages and emails, and a bit of patience because sometimes it also involves running three or four flights of stairs to review amendments stacked on a table next to a large photocopier in the Capitol basement. 

Enzi, an accountant by trade and former shoe store owner, began pushing the envelope almost as soon as he arrived in the Senate in 1997. He sought permission from the sergeant-at-arms to use a laptop computer at his Senate desk, sparking a debate that would take months of study before it would reach its eventual resolution.

The critics of Enzi’s proposal weren’t only the old bulls of the era — though West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd absolutely opposed it — but also a few younger senators of the late 1990s, like Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey.

“The quality of a U.S. senator is to stand on his own feet ... and rise and fall on the case that comes to mind,” Torricelli said at the time.

As technology has advanced, so have the responsibilities of the office of the sergeant-at-arms, which continues to be responsible for Senate computer systems. 

Enzi’s request was ultimately rejected by the leaders of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, but not before the sergeant-at-arms was commissioned to conduct a study that led to a recommendation that laptops be acceptable — as long as they weren’t connected to a network.

The Rules panel, led at the time by Virginia Republican John W. Warner and Kentucky Democrat Wendell H. Ford, ultimately disagreed.

Perhaps, with Enzi’s passing, it should be time for senators to review the question once again.

Niels Lesniewski is a CQ Roll Call senior writer.