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Let Congress Tweet!

July 13, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

Recently, members of Congress have started using real-time web services like Twitter and Qik to connect with the public in amazing new ways. Representatives have debated legislation live on Twitter by sending text messages from the House floor, and spontaneous, unedited video of daily life in the Capitol Building has been broadcast live on Qik. As John Culberson (R-TX), the most active user of these services on the Hill, says, “this new technology allows him to bypass the mainstream media and shine sunlight into the darkest corners of Congress.” But all this new technology is running up against old congressional rules, and from the controversy a new campaign has emerged: Let Our Congress Tweet!

In late June, Rep. Micheal Capuano (D-MA), the chairman of the Congressional Committee on Mailing Standards, issued a letter with recommendations on how to update the rules to make them more relevant to the Web. In particular, the proposed rule changes dealt with uploading congressional video to YouTube. Culberson read over letter and reviewed it on Twitter: “Before I could post on an outside website like this the site must meet comm guidelines, must be a fed disclaimer & my post must be approved,” he tweeted.

The goal of Capuano’s letter, however, wasn’t to create new restrictions for members’ web use, but to change the rules, which were originally designed to guard against tax-payers paying for political mailings, so that they actually apply to the new technologies. Right now, members who post on Qik, Twitter, or YouTube do so in violation of the rules.

The Let Our Congress Twitter! campaign was started by the Sunlight Foundation to show House leaders that the public cares about this issue. Hundreds of people have joined the campaign via Twitter, and the issue is getting major attention in the media, including NPR and the New York Times. Lawmakers’ use of the web is no longer a minor consideration compared to the rest of their duties; it has the potential to make fundamental changes in lawmakers’ style of governing. And with Congress’ approval rating the lowest it has ever been, people are anxious for change. Kudos to Culberson, the Sunlight Foundation and everyone else involved for making sure that the debate over changing the rules holds transparency and access as the main objectives.

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