If there is one thing congressional committees go through in their day-to-day activities, it's paper. Lots and lots of paper.
Take the typical markup of just one piece of legislation. Copies of the bill -- which can be upward of 30 pages long -- are passed out to the committee members, their staff, reporters and members of the public. Any relevant documents or testimony are also handed out, as are printouts of every proposed amendment. At a recent House Homeland Security Committee markup, there were 15 amendments offered, all of which were dutifully copied and dispersed by the committee's clerk.
The result is reams of paper, much of it only used for seconds before the committee moves on or, in most cases, votes down an amendment.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, however, has figured out a way to cut down on paper and save money that would make Steve Jobs proud: iPads.
After Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) became chairwoman in February, the committee bought 21 iPads for senators and committee staff to use during hearings and markups. Each is loaded with all the relevant documents and brought to the committee's meetings. The clerk even calls roll and tallies votes on an Excel spreadsheet on her iPad.
The iPads allow the panel to save roughly $250 per month that they would have spent on printer toner, according to committee spokesman Matt McAlvanah. Instead of ordering paper every month, the committee has purchased paper once in the past half a year -- meaning it has saved 25 boxes of paper.
At just one markup last week where Veterans Affairs acted on a handful of bills, McAlvanah said the committee saved $500 on copier ink, notebooks and dividers. It banked another $300, he said, because it did not have to pay staff overtime to make sure the copies were made and the documents were assembled.
Some of those savings, of course, are offset by the price of the iPads. But even there, the committee figured out some cost-cutting tactics.
When Murray took the helm of the committee, she decided to upgrade all of its computers to Microsoft Windows 7. The Senate's internal vendor told the committee it would cost $350 per computer to take care of the upgrades.
Instead, the committee's systems administrator took care of the upgrades himself. That, according to McAlvanah, was enough to offset the cost of the 21 iPads -- one for each of the committee's 15 senators and six for key committee staff.
There is also a practical benefit to the iPads: They make archiving committee documents much easier. McAlvanah said the Veterans Affairs Committee is the only Senate panel that is completely compliant with Senate rules on archiving its materials with the National Archives and Records Center.
The next step is loading audio of hearing testimony onto the iPad for senators to review.
The iPads were on full display last week at a markup held just off the Senate floor. Each iPad, labeled with a lawmaker's name, was lined up on a table when senators began coming in.
Some of the committee members seemed to enjoy them -- Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), for example, immediately grabbed his and started poking around.
Others were more hesitant, leaving them at the clerk's table or passing them off to their staffs. Several asked for instructions on how to use them.
Tester also asked the clerk in jest where the games were. The clerk said that there were none, prompting Tester to joke, "Then what's the point?"
Maybe before the next hearing, the clerk joked back, committee staff will upload each with "Angry Birds."