Web-Use Reform Happy Ending


(Cross-Posted from the Open House Project)

Yesterday, after months of negotiations and proposals, the House joined the Senate in updating the arcane guidelines that govern how Members of Congress use the Internet.

In May of 2007, the Sunlight Foundation released the Open House Project report, which included an entire chapter on the issue of Franking Reform. That chapter, prepared by David All and Paul Blumental, has guided our advocacy and discussions of web use restrictions since then.

Those discussions simmered until earlier this summer, when tensions between Members of the Franking Commission briefly escalated (the part of the Committee on House Administration that handles Web restrictions). This summer’s discussion caught some media attention, and unsettled some web-savvy Representatives, and ultimately engaged both parties’ leaders in the House.

The Sunlight Foundation capitalized on the chaos, creating the first twitter-based petition in the site, Let Our Congress Tweet, which amassed twitter-based signatures, and displayed vigorous support for updated rules from online communities across the political spectrum.

While House officials maneuvered publicly, the Senate passed similar reforms with a bit less fanfare. As recently as last week, agreement looked unlikely from the House committee, with Roll Call reporting that an attempt at negotiations ended in “an emotionally charged hearing and a breakdown in negotiations.”

That’s why we were suprised and delighted to get word from the Committee on House Administration that a new agreement had been reached. This measure wasn’t just a slight rewrite, however. The new guidelines represent an enormous change, one which has new media staff from both parties glowing.

Speaker Pelosi’s statement calls the revisions a “significant step forward toward bringing the House rules into the multimedia age and allowing for members to effectively communicate with their constituents online… I also thank citizen initiatives such as the Open House Project for their thoughtful recommendations and continued efforts to encourage Members to engage their constituents through internet technologies.”

Ranking Member Vern Ehlers was similarly laudatory of the new rules, and of Chairman Brady’s leadership: “Mr. Brady recognized the need to allow enhanced constituent communication, and demonstrated outstanding leadership that enabled this Committee to adopt a long-overdue change,” Ehlers stated. “It is imperative that Members have the ability to use whichever web services they feel will best inform their constituents about the important issues facing this country.”

The new rules, as written, make a very important distinction, and one we’re delighted to see considered: Member web use will be evaluated based on the “official content,” and not the venue in which the materials are posted. This puts new media communications on similar footing to traditional media, where Op-Eds and TV interviews are proximal to commercials without causing a conflict of interest.

The revisions should cause a renaissance in official political Web-use, with eager new media staff and savvy Members now able to confidently engage with their constituents. We can’t wait to see what they come up with, and can only hope that all government reform arguments have such happy endings.