Let Our Congress Tweet

by

Shouldn’t members of Congress be able to connect with all of us freely and easily online? I’d guess most of you would think that’s a good idea. So, when Sunlight’s Open House Project Google group got riled up this week about this issue, we were inspired to do something to rally citizens to ensure lawmakers can freely connect with us all online.

In that spirit, we are launching a new campaign, Let Our Congress Tweet, to urge Congress to make clear guidelines that do not inhibit lawmakers from freely interacting with constituents where they already go online to share ideas-through Web services like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.

Join our petition right now and make your voice count.

Last year, Sunlight’s Open House Project issued a report recommending straightforward technological reforms to increase transparency and public access to the work and members of the U.S. House of Representatives. One of our major recommendations was to permit lawmakers to take full advantage of Internet resources. Wonks will know this as our recommendation to modernize the Franking Rules that govern how members of Congress use the Internet to communicate with constituents, primarily through their official Web sites.

Unfortunately, these rules are decided ad hoc in advisory opinions. (A guidebook given to lawmakers about all their activities includes some rules about their Web use. When Congress first developed rules governing lawmakers’ use of the Internet, it viewed the new medium as an extension of telephones, mail, radio and television, putting e-mail and member Web sites under the purview of franking regulations. Franking regulations were developed to restrict lawmakers’ sending of unsolicited mailings to constituents, but today the differences between the old and new forms of communication are so great that a rethinking of franking policy over electronic communications is necessary.

Under the current system, members of Congress are forced to break rules to use new technologies and services to do what their constituents ask of them: connect, listen and be held accountable. So, that YouTube video you saw on a lawmaker’s Web site? Illegal! Couple that with the vagueness of only having ad hoc opinions to guide lawmakers in their Internet communications on a case-by-case basis, and you get confusion as to what lawmakers are or aren’t allowed to do…resulting in a chilling effect.

As Congress reconsiders the restrictions placed on congressional Internet use, you can tell Congress to embrace the communication technologies that we already use. Join us and tweet the petition now.

Categorized in:
Share This:
FacebookTwitter
  • Reading Mr. Wonderlich’s post last night caused me to do some research, including a reading of the rules you point to above. It’s unclear to me which of those rules makes use of Twitter or YouTube by a House member illegal. Both would seem to be covered as either a subscribed list or a web site “on which information is posted for voluntary public access.”

    Can you clarify?

  • Can you say where “on which information is posted for voluntary public access” comes from? That would be helpful in answering the question…

  • That quote is taken from the “Unsolicited Mass Communications Restrictions” section of the CHA Member Handbook, which is direct linked above, tied to the phrase “rules about their Web use”:

    http://gop.cha.house.gov/services/membershandbook.shtml#unsolicited

    The gist of that section of the handbook can be summed up by its second paragraph:

    “Except where noted, unsolicited mass communications, regardless of the means of transmittal, must receive an Advisory opinion from the Franking Commission, prior to dissemination. Advisory Opinions may be obtained from the Franking Commission at x59337.”

    The particular quote you ask about is pulled directly from item 4 under the “This restriction does not apply to the following” heading, which reads in full:

    “Web sites (including a Member’s official web site) and other electronic bulletin boards on which information is posted for voluntary public access”

    So, as a layman reading this, I get the sense that House members may not spam me (good) but can post information freely to public websites where I can voluntarily find their information (also good). As a citizen and interested party, I can choose to use facilities available at that website to subscribe to these public postings; the CHA rules do not bind me in any way.

    Can you clarify the basis of the claim that the current CHA rules make it illegal for a House member to post videos on YouTube?

  • This is an excellent comment, thank you.

    As far as I can tell, the current problem with youtube videos being posted by member offices (which are treated differently than committee offices or leadership offices) is the concern that:

    -the youtube mark on all youtube videos implies some sort of endorsement
    -the syndicated youtube videos, in addition to the way ads and other content are served on the main page where each video resides, could introduce either commercial content or “decorum” problems (like inappropriate links etc)

    Both Capuano’s and Pelosi’s recent letters admit that the Franking rules are “antiquated”, and probably the most compelling evidence to that effect is the confusion among congressional staff about what constitutes acceptable web use.

    Combine that confusion with the ad hoc advisory opinions whose judgments are public but not well known (even among staff), and you have an environment that isn’t conducive to confident engagement, which is what we’re interested in seeing.

  • Lawmakers ‘tweet’ away in the Congress. Listen to Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Oh) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) – http://tinyurl.com/5kauej

    I thought this would be of interest to you.

    Thanks,
    Ari

  • For more commentary, see this post on geek! daily…

    http://blog.geekdaily.org/2008/07/let-our-congr-1.html