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No Twittering in Congress: Censorship or Good Government?

Posted in New Media and Tech, and Politics and Public Affairs

When I learned that Texas Congressman John Culberson is a Twitter user, I began following him right away. I suspect that the Congressman and I, a conservative Republican from my own state, would agree on very little. But his Twitter persona, is open and “human”. The posts are neither boring advertisements for his own accomplishments, or spin-filled obfuscations. And he respond to a lot of other Twitterers. That’s more than I can say for the bots that represent other Twitterfied polticians. So what if we don’t agree on policy. He knows how to Twitter effectively, and he gives me a window into the workings of the greatest deliberative body in the world, the Congress of the United States.

Today, Culberson sent a series of Twitters alerting his followers (that just sounds a little creepy in a political context, but I digress) to a letter (pdf) written by the chair of a Congressional subcommittee regarding the posting of video (and by extension, other media content) to domains. The letter basically proposes that members of Congress not be allowed to post video to external sites from within the Capitol or other federal facilities, in accordance with the body’s franking rules. Franking, for those of you who can’t remember your high school government class,refers to communication, usually by mail, from members of Congress , to their constituents. Regulations both provide members free postage. Franking also governs the rules under which members’ official Web sites are hosted, and content that’s allowed on those sites. The idea is to clearly demarcate official communication (allowed) from electioneering or campaigning (not allowed).

The letter, larded up as it is with jargon and committee-speak, seems to say that members of Congress (and staff) should be disallowed from freealnce social media posting for the same reason that they can’t update their campaign Web sites, make fundraising calls, or stuff those direct mail pieces from their Capitol offices. The letter actually reads a lot like corporate policies against using personal email accounts, or making personal phone calls at work. Video and social media posting, the letter posits, are not part of the members’ official duties, if they’re posted to external Web sites that may have commercial or political content.

This is a conflict worth some serious thought. I would be surprised if the franking rules have kept up with Internet communication. I really like being able to read a Congress member’s Twitter posts. I might even enjoy watching his or her Qik videos, if I did that sort of thing. But how would I feel if, say, my congressman spent time liveblogging committee hearings instead of participating? And how would I feel if, let’s say, access to the members’ social media output were restricted based on contributions made to his or her campaign? Not happy.

The solution is not to call the evil Democrats (one subcommittee chair = “the Democrats”?) out as censors, but to undertake a rewrite of the franking rules that takes social media reality into account. It is certainly possible to create rules that, as they do for telephone calls, allow members of Congress to communicate just as the rest of us do—with no prior restraint, and no unnecessary restrictions—while still allowing voters to feel confident that their elected officials are not running 140-character re-election campaigns from the floor of the House. I’m confident that forward-thinking members of both parties will support such changes, if people like Mr. Culberson, and his Twitter followers seek to educate, rather than demonize. On that, he and I could agree.

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