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Tweets Sparked Over Twitter in Congress

Congress has been engaged in a heated debate recently. Not just about the Iraq war, the economy and health care, but about whether House members are free to “tweet.” The NY Times reports that a proposal to limit House members’ use of social media outlets on the Web has been causing a brouhaha both in Congress and cyberspace. In his NPR interview, Andrew Noyes of the Tech Daily Dose Blog explained that debates ensued after Rep. Capuano (D-MA) was asked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to head the Franking Commission and revamp rules on how members of Congress communicate with constituents, especially in the Internet age.

The blogosphere and House floor have been excited with twitters concerning Capuano’s proposal which he claims was only meant to regulate how members of Congress post videos on the web in order to “prevent members from endorsing commercial or political advertisements” in keeping with a vintage house rule. Yet, twitter-happy, tech-savvy House members such as Rep. Culberson of Texas are in an uproar, describing the move as an “attack on free speech.”

Internet activists, bloggers, and avid Twitter users have also been quick to respond. The Sunlight Foundation created the “Let Our Congress Tweet” campaign, encouraging people to “tweet” their disdain through an online petition, while the TechSailor Blog offers Congressional source documents to readers. Other bloggers such as those at Shelly Blog and Techdirt Blog, although supportive, are critical of Culberson’s approach, even calling him out for “igniting a misleading partisan fight.”

Yet, this debate goes beyond the issue of maintaining house rules or partisan politics. It exposes the disconnect between the 75% of American adults now using the Internet, and the unfortunate number of House members who are falling behind in their use and understanding of new, interactive Internet technologies.

In its 2008 Communicating with Congress Project report, the Congressional Management Foundation found that although the Internet is a simpler, more cost-effective method for contacting Congress, “neither citizens nor congressional offices have learned to use it in ways that facilitate truly effective communications between citizens and members of Congress.” Furthermore, “a significant number (of representatives) still respond to email with post-mail, 42% have substandard or failing websites, and few have embraced new media tools for better serving online constituents.”

However, progress has been made. YouTube recently vowed to create a “government ghetto” and provide legislators with their own commercial-free video sites; a move which discourages congressman’s over-dependence on traditional, “snail-mail” methods of communication with constituents.

Given the currently low approval rates of Congress, it is surprising that more members do not take advantage of the potentially powerful new interactive communication technologies out there, and even more discouraging that they feel the need to regulate what many do not use or understand. As Rep. Capuano admitted to the Washington Post, “I make no bones about it. I don’t know anything about this stuff.” More elected officials should be embracing these new technologies, in order to empower themselves and promote greater political participation by their constituents. As the authors of Rebooting America note, “In a full circle of thought and commitment, the Internet revolution has enabled us to rediscover our passion for broad public participation in government and governance.”

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