Congress is holding its first hearing to deal specifically with electronic data interchange on June 18.

"The goal is simply to analyze how small business is being and is going to be affected by the new EDI environment," said Gorge Haynes, staff director, House Small Business Subcommittee on Environment and Labor.Electronic data interchange allows companies to automate their dealings with each other. It replaces paper documents with strictly standardized electronic messages.

Almost 10,000 companies in the United States use EDI. Large companies and big government agencies, however, dominate the statistics.

Small companies have been expressing their concern about EDI for some time. Some fear they will be forced into using a technology that doesn't meet their needs. Others see a potent tool for boosting U.S. competitiveness.

"Over the last year or so there have been a number of small businesses that have contacted us about EDI and what's going on," Mr. Haynes said.

That, and steady pressure by the EDI Association, are the main reasons for the hearing, officials said.

Ignorance and cost are frequently given as two reasons why more companies have not adopted EDI. Proponents hope they'll make progress on both issues as a result of the hearing.

"We really want to expose them (Congress) a little bit more to the business opportunities and the economic opportunities that can benefit the U.S., were EDI to be more widespread than it is now," said Hank Meetze, president, Railinc Corp., a Washington-based subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads.

Talk of possible EDI-related tax breaks has moderated since the hearing was first planned in December.

"We have to modify our tone on that," Mr. Dreyer said. "Obviously, the mood of Congress is of a different bent," he said.

Congressmen Esteban Torres, D-Calif., and Norman Sisisky, D-Va., will conduct the hearing.

"We're going to have three panels," Mr. Haynes said. The first will set the stage and present the basics of EDI. Mr. Dreyer will speak and will be accompanied by a representative from the Department of Defense. Officials from the Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Customs Service also have been invited.

The second panel will feature major government contractors such as Ford Aerospace Corp., Detroit, and McDonnell Douglas Corp., St. Louis, Mr. Haynes said. Small business executives who have contacted the congressmen about EDI will speak on the third panel.