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Where lawmakers look at technology

An elite technology fair on Capitol Hills gives lawmakers a glimpse into technologies that will likely come up in Congress that year and helps government contractors clear up confusion.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When computer-security experts hired by the Defense Department slammed Accenture Ltd.'s Internet voting system for soldiers and other Americans abroad last month, the Bermuda-based consulting company decided it needed to go on the offensive.

One tack: making its case outside the Pentagon by getting itself into an elite technology fair on Capitol Hill.

The annual event, held the week before last, gives a glimpse into how government contractors peddle their services and products. The Internet Caucus Kickoff Reception and Technology Fair, now in its seventh year, picks the technologies most likely to come up for action that year in Congress.

Companies jostle to be included because the reception is pitched to movers and shakers -- senators, representatives and aides -- and draws up to 700 people. The event is invitation-only for companies.

Inside the fair
The fair lets these people get their hands on cool new technologies. Although Congress budgets billions of dollars for technology each year -- $59 billion this year alone -- lawmakers and their staff members have limited opportunities to see the stuff in action.

"Space is so small in the lobby or in the congressman's office, and the conference room down the hallway is usually a converted janitor's closet," said Timothy M. Lordan, staff director of the outside advisory committee to the congressional Internet Caucus. "It's very difficult to show them live technology."

The fair is hosted by companies, non-profit organizations and think tanks that work with the Internet Caucus, founded in 1996 by legislators who started inviting companies because they wanted to learn more about the technology they regulate.

Lordan solved the space problem by holding the fair in the Senate's Hart office building in a large L-shaped room with a spectacular view of the Capitol dome through its floor-to-ceiling windows. But the event's popularity is making even that space feel tight. "The only room bigger is the House chamber," Lordan said.

The vast majority of attendees were aides, the suit-clad policy wonks who are not as glamorous as their bosses, but do the heavy lifting when it comes to meeting with companies, mastering the details of new technology and drafting legislation. As they milled around, they clutched bottles of beer and nibbled on cheese and grapes.

Finding the right technology
This year, 60 companies applied for the 30 spots. Among the winners: SAP, a German software company that let aides try their hand at dealing with a hypothetical chemical spill in New York using a computer program. The software let them quickly access lists of the nearest emergency workers trained in handling hazardous materials, the names of everyone within five miles who would need to be evacuated and a map of the area that automatically considered information such as wind direction and speed.

Among the people seeing this program for the first time was Mary Beth Laverghetta, an aide to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) who follows homeland security issues for the senator. "It's more helpful than something on paper," she said.

Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.) had already invited the company to his office to describe the system with an eye toward perhaps using it in Philadelphia, said Kevin Cooper, a lobbyist for SAP. The meeting was limited, however, to a paper and slide-show presentation.

BearingPoint Inc., a McLean technology consulting company, demonstrated the ID cards it created for the Defense Department. Eventually the cards, which can hold fingerprints and each cost $5 and $10, are to be used with fingerprint readers to control access to buildings and classified databases. The company is also in talks to store soldiers' emergency medical information on the cards for use by paramedics in the field or to produce cards for food stamp recipients that would be used like debit cards, said Gordon Hannah Jr., a senior manager at BearingPoint.

Accenture meets confusion
For Accenture, the fair was a good way to counter the bad press after the Pentagon criticism, which had made the front pages of many newspapers a few weeks earlier. Then, only six days before the fair, concerns about the security of the Internet voting system -- the Pentagon's experts worried about cyber attacks and fraud -- led the military to scuttle a trial to send votes through the Internet in this upcoming presidential election.

But the Pentagon told Accenture to keep working on the concept. Staff members at the event were a little confused after this bureaucratic back-and-forth.

"It was a chance to correct some misconceptions," said Meg T. McLaughlin, president of Accenture's eDemocracy Services unit. She was inundated with questions by Hill staff members during the two-hour event. "I can't tell you how many people came up to me and said the project was canceled."

And that is one reason companies like to come here.

"The bottom line is I've got 535 bosses on Capitol Hill and I need to bring all of them up to speed," said Charles Cantus, a lobbyist for BearingPoint. "I want them to be able to say, "I've seen that before."