Capitol Hill Battles Over Twitter and Blackberries

posted in: E-Gov, Web 3.0, White House | 4

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is on Twitter @johnculberson. So is Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) @timryan. For those who don’t know, Twitter is a microblog that enables users to “tweet” out short text messages in 140 characters or less (about a sentence or two) designed to answer this question: “What are you doing right now?”

House Twitter sealThe popularity of the site has certainly grown, especially in the world of politics in recent months:

  • The White House has been on Twitter for about a year.
    UPDATE 1/2009: President George W. Bush’s Twitter account (@TheWhiteHouse) was closed shortly after President Obama was sworn-in. The new account may be found at @whitehouse.
  • Many presidential hopefuls were Twitterng early in the 2008 campaign including Sens. Edwards, Obama, Clinton and McCain.
  • At the Personal Democracy Forum (PdF) on June 23-24 in New York, Ana Marie Cox moderated a policy debate between Liz Mair (for McCain) and Mike Nelson (for Obama) via Twitter (hashtag: #pdfdebate).
  • Just this past week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was Twittering live from the G8 Summit in Toyako, Japan.

Although the U.S. House (@HouseFloor) and U.S. Senate (@SenateFloor) are both on Twitter, supposedly the leadership feels differently about individual Members of Congress using the tool.

Can We Be Frank?
So, what’s the issue? According to the House Administration Committee, any official communication with constituents needs to be approved by their Franking Commission which issues policies related to mailings from Congressional offices.

Rep. Culberson believes that preventing Members from Twittering is a violation of First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech. House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH) agrees and fired off a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It has come to my attention that the Democratic-controlled Committee on House Administration, at the recommendation of the Democratic chairman of the Commission on Mailing Standards (Franking Commission), is considering the adoption of new congressional rules that would effectively shut down what has emerged as a free and helpfully uncensored pipeline of real-time information between the American people and their elected leaders.

I believe Members of Congress should have the ability to choose whichever service they believe will best assist in communicating with their constituents, and not be limited to only services “approved” by the House Administration Committee or any other government entity. We must encourage, not restrict, the free and open flow of uncensored information between the American people and their elected leaders over the Internet.

Members should be allowed to use technologies, websites, and services (paid or unpaid) to communicate with their constituents via text, video, or audio, so long as the content posted by the Member complies with House rules and Franking content regulations.

So, should tweets fall under House franking rules or does Congress need to adapt to 21st Century technology? I vote for the latter – and I am not alone.

Others, such as The Open House Project and the Sunlight Foundation are also calling on Congress to update their policies to reflect our changing digital world.

‘Twitter’ origin
A side note: After reading a few books to my 5 year-old daughter a couple weekends ago, I came across a character named “Twitter” in a Disney published fairy tale called “Beck and the Great Berry Battle.”

In the story, the hummingbirds get into a blackberry battle (actual berries, not RIM devices!) with the chipmunks over a big misunderstanding. Beck, an animal-talent fairy, attempts to resolve the dispute along with her friend, Twitter, a little blue hummingbird. They fly between the various animal factions delivering messages and attempting to broker peace, all the while dodging flying blackberries.

Hmmm. Note that the Twitter logo is a little blue bird. Coincidence? Don’t know, but for some reason I felt the need to tweet about it (@almacy).


During an interview with Chad Pergram from Fox News just outside the House chamber, Rep. Culberson LIVE streams via Qik and discusses the issues surrounding the proposed House rules to restrict Member content to only a list of “approved” websites. Look out CNN iReport, here comes!


Republican = Open, Democrat = Closed (Patrick Ruffini, The Next Right)

Pelosi: New Bipartisan House Rules Won’t Quash Free Speech Online (Wired)

Why does Pelosi want rules she already violates? (Soren Dayton, The Next Right)

Speaker Pelosi to Leader Boehner on Proposed Franking Changes (The Gavel: Speaker Pelosi’s official blog)

Culberson, Capuano, and the Struggle for Relevance (Michael Turk, Kung Fu Quip)

Sunlight Foundation launches, complete with @LOCT08 Twitter page, #LOCT08 hashtag “tweme” and this recommended tweet:

“Congress, change the rules. Talk to us on our social networks. Let our Congress Tweet! #LOCT08”

Nice work by Andrew (@agfhome) over at Washington Internet Daily to nab this Qik interview with Rep. Culberson.

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4 Responses

  1. Jeremy Nicoll

    I agree! Seriously – what’s the reason for shutting down communication between a congress person and the people they are supposed to represent. What’s going to happen: are they going to have higher chance of being bought off? There’s already plenty of opportunity for that, they will sell out if they want to. Restricting communication is not going to change anything. God forbid that they actually *talk* to people and find out what they want. Oh no! They won’t be under the influence of lobbyists as much! Whatever shall we do??

  2. Kevin Dugan

    Dave – This is great. I think this gives me a totally different, but more interesting post. Will link of course. Thanks!

  3. Ben

    It appears to me that government of the people, for the people and by the people has no meaning to those in power who want to remain in power.

    If the politicians start using sites full of ads and political statements, the public will avoid these sites, just as we do now for sites full of ads and pop-ups.

    By in large, the public is smarter than Congress thinks we are.


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