When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate over the weekend, it set off a flurry of activity on some official congressional Twitter accounts.
Many posts were in support of the seven-term Wisconsin Republican's promotion to his party's national ticket.
"Congratulations to my colleague @RepPaulRyan. He is a serious pick," tweeted Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio.
"It's not every day that the House's best & brightest. @RepPaulRyan is drafted to help lead America's comeback," posted Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
And some were in opposition.
“@MittRomney sent a clear msg to Independent voters this a.m.: ‘Take a hike’,” tweeted Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Within a few hours, another flurry of activity ensued — this time on Politwoops, a Sunlight Foundation website that collects politicians' deleted tweets. Seems that a number of members realized they had just made prohibited tweets on their official Twitter accounts and quickly expunged the record.
"Anything affiliated with a [political] race should not be official content," said Gregory Abbott, a Democratic spokesperson for the House Administration Committee, a bipartisan group that oversees congressional operations, including members' use of their government websites.
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It was yet another indication that lawmakers, who are working hard to be hip to social media, haven't quite mastered the nuances of communications in an electronic age. Before the digital age, Congress adhered to franking rules channelling communication to constituents. Under this policy, offices in both the House and Senate can send unsolicited mass mailings to constituents. But there are strict rules designed to prevent incumbents from exploiting the advantage for political gain. And those rules have been broadened to cover new-fangled communications.
Congressional use of social media policy is governed by the House of Representatives' Congressional Handbook, which states that a member's website cannot contain "campaign information." Although most social media sites don't have a government domain, they are still under the auspices of the website rules in the handbook. Since the lawmakers — or their staff members — doing the posting are on the government payroll, they're not supposed to be politicking on the taxpayers' time.
The popular use of social media in the past few years has influenced Congress to adopt new platforms for public correspondence. In 2008, the House and Senate allowed members and staff to use social media to correspond with constituents, a cause supported by Sunlight. In the House, the handbook recently underwent a comprehensive update at the end of last year to accomodate these technical advances. But based on some of the weekend traffic, not all members have learned the rules of the information highway.
Social media has helped congressional offices connect with constituents. It has also allowed the public to instantly know legislators' views on certain government and policy issues. But the easy access to these new media platforms, like Twitter, has led many elected officials to impulsively blurt out their opinion regarding campaign-related matters.
The weekend's congressonal Twitter activity — and tweeters' remorse — amount to minor digital faux pas in the view of Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), but she added that campaign messages on government social media websites are still not acceptable.
"While political tweets on official accounts are not the worst offense a member can commit, the point of this rule is to separate the official actions of Congress from politics and to prevent public resources from being used for campaign activity," e-mailed Sloan, whose a non-profit group advocates ethics and accountability in government. "It is fine for members to express their political views on social media. They just shouldn’t do it on their official accounts.”
Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., was another member who expressed her excitement online about the new GOP presidential ticket Saturday. On her government Twitter account, she first retweeted a pro-Ryan post, which was later removed from Foxx's congressional Twitter site. Ellmers tweeted out three more original posts on her congressional supporting the newly appointed running mate.
When Sunlight contacted her office to inquire about the politicized content, Ellmers' spokesman Tom Doheny, replied in an e-mail that the tweets were done in the "heat of the moment." The congresswoman was "excited seeing one of her friends and colleagues being honored with the selection as nominee for vice president," Doheny added. "They were mistakenly sent out on the official account."
Since Sunlight's call, the posts in question have been deleted from Ellmers' official Twitter account. Ellmers, however, kept a retweet from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who also expressed his approval of Ryan: "I'm very happy w Ryan as VP nominee he is an intellectual heavyweight most important he advocates well fiscal conservatism."
The Senate's Internet policy also strictly prohibits political matter posted on websites, which includes social media.
(Daniel Schuman contributed to this story.)