Member Web Use Reconsidered

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New lines are being drawn about the restrictions Members face when using the Internet.

House Minority Leader Boehner today released a memo, entitled the “Internet Freedom Alert”, criticizing a letter sent by Rep. Capuano to the Chairman of the Committee on House Administration.

Member Web use restrictions are among the main Open House Project priorities, and one of the chapters of the report is about the restrictions set by the Franking Commission, which operates under the Committee on House Administration. (This chapter was written by David All and Paul Blumenthal.)

Boehner’s letter today rightly sounds the alarm about Capuano’s newly proposed Franking commission guidelines. In his letter, Capuano admits that Web use restrictions need to be redesigned, and proposes that acceptable Web sites and uses be compiled by the Committee, and that content from Members, when posted on outside sites, should “meet existing content rules and regulations”, and should “not be posted on a website or page where it may appear with commercial or political information.” (pdf)

While reconsidering or reforming these antiquated restrictions is a laudable goal, the proposed guideline reforms are only a half-measure toward modernized engagement online, and don’t address the underlying problems with these unnecessary restrictions.

The Committee on House Administration and its Franking Commission are tasked with making sure taxpayer money isn’t spent on commercial or political advertising on the Web. While there is good reason to limit incumbents’ advantage to be gained online, Capuano’s memo overstates the liability that comes when Members of Congress use popularly accepted communication tools.  Exaggerating the risks online hamstrings Members and staff at exactly the time when they should be boldly engaging with constituents.

Communicating online involves only negligible cost, which means that the potential advantage given to incumbents, or the potential for a conflict of interest, is only very slight. Imagine a traditional example. No one would impugn the motivations of a Member who grants an interview to a very small newspaper in their district, where perhaps their grandchild is a journalist. Even though such an interview has a distinct financial benefit for the small paper, Members are free to speak with whomever they wish, and can be confrontational, or only pick interviews with sympathetic figures, at their discretion.

This discretion is important. Members need to be able to communicate freely, and the financial consequences of where their voice is featured are tiny compared to the possible consequences of trying to limit Members’ speech.

Has it ever occurred that a Member gives interviews to only one particular newspaper? I doubt it. That just isn’t the way motivations work in a political world.

If the potential for conflict of interest or political advertising is so low the context of the traditional press, then why are we treating the Internet differently? Is the Internet so unfamiliar, so public, that it should be considered undignified to have a video on the same page as a link that might link to pornography? That worry was reasonable in 1995, but not now.

People generally understand the potential of digital communications tools. Most services are provided without cost, and are open to public viewing, and, increasingly, public content submission. While this opens the door for disruptive participation, it also provides us with the immense potential of our shared digital connection, with consequences as fundamental as those of the printing press or the telephone.

If Members can use whatever brand of inkpen, or any brand of paper, or buy whatever shoes they want, they should be given radically expanded freedom to use the Internet, and make the same empowering discoveries that their constituents are. Even if that same pen was once used to scribble a ransom note.

The Committee on House Administration still has a line to draw, and plays an important function through the Franking Commission in preventing abuse of taxpayer funded resources. The restrictions, however, should reflect a balance between the liability they’re meant to avoid, and the potential benefits Congress could realize. The conflict of interest (or undignifiedness), is minimal, at best, and the potential benefits are nothing short of revolutionary.

Citizens are overcoming their fears about engaging online, and Congress should follow suit.

Congressional staff working on reforming Franking restrictions should be praised for their efforts, and Republican Leader Boehner should be praised for his bold stance on such reforms.

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  • WeircureHit

    Hi

    As newly registered user i just wanted to say hello to everyone else who uses this site :-)

  • tim

    why wouldn’t our reps want to stay in touch with us via any communication tool available.? Email, websites are becoming so common place that twitter and other social communication tools are turning into the future of technological connections. We should embrace it, not shun it.

  • billb

    I’m totally in favor of our reps using modern technology, but I think your analogy to paper and pens brands is inapt. If my rep sent out press releases on paper given to him by, and emblazoned with, some large corporation’s logos, I guarantee you that some people in my district would be up in arms. You have to be careful how you draw the distinction between ad-supported and nominally free sites like Twitter, and free stationery with corporate logos.

    We understand the differences, but I’m not sure my mom does.

  • Xasteius

    It’s the Fairness Doctrine for the House.

  • Dave D

    The new social networks are becoming an ever more important way that people stay connected. Why would we want our Federal Representatives to be out of the loop?

    People need to be MORE connected with their representatives, not less.

  • So in June, I was made aware that the House of Representitves Congressman for my district, John Culberson just started using Twitter. Just because it seemed interesting, I added him (www.twitter.com/johnculberson).

    Shortly thereafter, he tweeted “I am on the House floor. I am voting yes for Community Health Centers which provide medical care to uninsured Americans.”

    This completely blew me away as I started thinking of the ramifications of this.. not just what he voted on, but the fact that this one thing, a congressman starting to use Twitter, just made our representative democracy real for me, something that’s happening right now and being made by real people that I can communicate with and share my opinions with.

    Previously our government has been something that has happened, in my head, somewhere over there, out of sight, mostly out of mind unless I’m swearing at the radio whenever GWB produces another completely idiotic sound clip. Even the primaries have been something that happens on the other side of the screen.

    Now, John Culberson is a Republican, and I don’t agree with all of his views, or heck (after reading a bit more on his platform) even most of them, I heartily applaud him making himself accessible in this way.

    But you know what? Before I started following John on twitter, I wasn’t even aware who my representative in the House was, and now I’ve got a direct line to a real live human being that’s representing me in government, so I can let him know if I disagree with him, and why, and he can fill us in on what he’s voting for, what’s going on in Washington and heck, what he had for lunch if he likes. And that’s awesome.

    So in short, I can deal with disagreeing with his politics, while wholly supporting the way he is going about doing his politics.

    I feel like our current administration takes the position that, since they’re the ones in power, they owe nothing to the American people as regards to what, why or how they are doing their jobs. I believe that this cavalier attitude will have a tremendous backlash in the very near future, and that one of the best ways to accomplish this is to bring the attention and voice of the constituents back into the process. This is why the application of new technology to bring about transparency, accessibility and accountability to our government is tremendously exciting to me.

    This is also why I believe that members of congress should not be limited or censored in this means of communication, effectively killing this movement just as it starts.