Getting social on Capitol Hill

Rep. Mac Thornberry doesn’t tweet on Twitter, or anywhere else probably.

But he recently sounded off on the right of other U.S. House members to post updates — tweets — up to 140 characters on the microblogging site, even if he doesn’t.

"Oh, Twitter, I don’t think it’s for me," Thornberry, R-Texas, said. "I don’t think people are interested in what I had for lunch."

Members of Congress are increasingly turning to the Web and social sites such as Qik, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to get their messages out. Some contend those members are Internet outlaws, violating rules for mass communications and embroiled in conflicts of interest because of online advertising.

Midwestern State University professor Jeremy Duff doesn’t buy the conflict-of-interest argument, saying lawmakers’ opinion pieces in newspapers, magazines or online might be accompanied by ads.

"People generally do not read an op-ed written by an MC (member of Congress) and then look at the advertisement for Viagra next to it and assume that the MC therefore endorses Viagra or that Viagra endorses them," he said in an e-mail.

Regulations and federal law on members’ taxpayer-funded communications are supposed to ensure they’re nonpolitical and are strictly in the name of constituent service.

And another Texas congressman seems Twitter-bent on breaking rules requiring approval from the House Administration Committee for communications to 500 or more whether that’s pieces of mail, e-mails or telephone calls.

"I break the rules every day when I send a Qik or a Twitter or post on a blog," GOP Rep. John Culberson said in a recent interview. "In fact, as soon as we hang up, I’m going to commit an illegal act, and I will send out a Twitter post."

Culberson has embraced social networking media, even turning the tables on a television reporter left speechless while the congressman chattered at him in a Qik video post.

"It was fun," Culberson said. "I’m not an expert interviewer. I realized I talked too much."

Partisan conflict flared this summer when the House Administration Committee looked into new rules to govern video postings on outside Web sites.

Republicans cried violation of free-speech rights.

Their "laughably inaccurate assertions" triggered a response meant to be calming from the Democratic chairman of the committee’s bipartisan Congressional Commission on Mailing Standards.

"First, the ONLY item we seek to address is LOOSENING existing rules to allow members to post videos as a first step toward making the rules meet our constituents’ expectations regarding how they communicate with us in the 21st Century," Rep. Mike Capuano of Massachusetts wrote in a July letter.

The bipartisan commission — commonly known as the Franking Commission — examined modernizing antiquated rules originally written to oversee members’ use of taxpayer-funded postage for letters to constituents.

"They have not updated the franking regulation for the 21st century with the emergence of new technology," said Michael Frohlich, a former staff member for the Franking Commission.

"As long as it’s official, then we shouldn’t have overarching restrictions," Frohlich said.

Some think it’s already too late to make new rules stick to that ever-changing, slippery surface of the Internet.

The avenues through which to communicate are too numerous, Paul Fabrizio, political science professor at McMurry University in Abilene, said.

"I don’t see them disarming themselves when those rules would not be imposed on their challengers," Fabrizio said.

It also strikes him as heavy-handed for the Franking Commission, handpicked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to "tell me where I can and cannot communicate with my constituents and with the American people," he said.

MSU political scientist Duff said 2.0 comunication can bring politics to life and bridge the gap between constituent and representative.

"In my opinion, the ability to use the Internet, videos, instant messaging, etc., to reach constituents and make government more accessible outweighs the potential for conflict of interest in this case," Duff said.

 

(Contact Trish Choate of the Wichita Falls Times Record News at choatet(at)shns.com)

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