Magazine article Insight on the News

Words of 'Wisdom' Never off the Record

Magazine article Insight on the News

Words of 'Wisdom' Never off the Record

Article excerpt

Congress' official daily document has had the last word for more than a century. Now the publishers plan to embrace technology to modernize production -- pleasing members and taxpayers alike.

Congress is entering the age of technology. "Whew!" exclaim the reporters of debates, who sit quietly typing in the midst of a virtual cross fire of words on the floors of the House and Senate, day in and day out, as they prepare to pitch the stenograph in accordance with the technological revolution.

Words uttered, stammered or tied in soliloquy in congressional debate find their way in due course into the 200-plus pages of the Congressional Record. The official document has been produced every day Congress has convened since 1873. Prior to that, proceedings were tracked less formally and accuracy was questionable.

In 1873 a busy House or Senate floor would find a reporter jotting dashes and symbols -- a shorthand of sort -- in five-minute intervals. They then would run their code to a transcriber and dictate. Then came the stenograph, a computerized version of which still is used, operated in 15-minute intervals with six reporters rotating. The computerized stenographs instantaneously produce a transcript that then is given a light editing by parliamentarily trained reporters. Then the transcriber takes over, polishing the remarks into final form.

The manuscript account of the day's proceedings moves at last to the Government Printing Office, or GPO, and is rekeyed into the typesetting system before being printed. "All of that is assembled here overnight and made available to Congress as soon as it convenes the next morning. If Congress has a heavy workload and stays in late until 1, 2 or 3 in the morning, the GPO is here working on putting out that Record for them by the next day," says GPO spokesman Andy Sherman.

"There is a move within the House now toward modern technology -- to use CD-ROMS and save on the expense of printing and binding," says Sarah Binder, a Brookings Institution research associate and author of a forthcoming book on the history of filibustering. New systems will allow Congress to transmit the information directly to the GPO computers for printout. Approximately 50 percent is transmitted electronically by the Senate; the House is lagging, electronically submitting the votes and perhaps 2 percent of the debates.

The Record's annual budget for fiscal 1997 is estimated at $18.5 million. Of this, $14.5 million is earmarked for the publication and the rest is dedicated to getting on-line and to support the bound edition. …

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