If you’re like me, some large number of the people you follow on Twitter have tweeted something like this today:

Congress, change the rules. Talk to us on our social networks. http://LetOurCongressTweet.org Let our Congress Tweet! #LOCT08

You may be tempted to join in. It seems like a noble cause, and whoever’s trying to keep Congress from tweeting must be evil, bad, and wrong, wrong, wrong. Right?

Maybe not.

John Wonderlich of The Sunlight Foundation — an organization which professes the admirable goal of, among other things, more transparency in government — published a blog post today titled, “Member Use of the Web Reconsidered”. I know this because they also registered and launched the site LetOurCongressTweet.org today, whose content implies that Congress fears the internet and that the quality of discourse with our politicians would be vastly improved by allowing them to use “the communication technologies that we already use” as if they were still writing with quills on parchment and dispatching their missives via a coach-and-four.

Now let’s be clear here. I’m a tree-hugging San Francisco Democrat who firmly believes in transparent government and free speech; of course my first reaction should be to tweet this every hour on the hour. But I’m also a rationalist who likes to understand the issue reasonably fully before I lend my voice, so I clicked through to Wonderlich’s post, which felt low on facts and high on rhetoric. At one point, Wonderlich engages in this reductio ad absurdum argument:

“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 […]”

He could just as easily have said, “If Members can drive whatever brand of car they like on whatever roads they please, they should be given radically expanded freedom to drive on sidewalks and in public parks” with just as much semantic content. But at least we’re clear that they’ve moved beyond quill and parchment. And they apparently wear shoes! Hooray!

However, he does give good links, one of which led me to section 7 of the Open House Foundation’s analysis of the restrictions on House members’ web usewhere I found (once I learned to read just the parts excerpted from other reports and ignore the opinion bits) some excellent historical context regarding why those regulations came to be (hint: concerns over using public resources and time for personal purposes and members linking from their official sites to commercial and political sites they favored).

With this fresh in my mind, I read Rep. Michael Capuano’s letter. To my eye, the letter recommends the CHA give more freedom than is currently enjoyed, specifically by allowing the posting of video content on non-House.gov servers as long as the spirit of the current CHA rules and regulations are observed. It makes no reference to tightening any restrictions; instead, in precise language that’s refreshingly devoid of posturing, it clearly recommends:

  • Official content posted on an external domain must be clearly identified as produced by a House office for official purposes, and meet existing content rules and regulations;
  • To the maximum extent possible, the official content should not be posted on a website or page where it may appear with commercial or political information or any other information not in compliance with the House’s content guidelines.
  • Any link from a House website to an external site on which the Member video is hosted must contain an exit notice.
  • CHA, the Office of Web Assistance (OWA), or other designated House entity should maintain a list of external sites that meet whatever requirements are established by CHA.  

In contrast, House Republican Leader John Boehner’s “Internet Freedom Alert” to “Online Community & Activists” nearly oozes with emotionally charged phrases as he writes “to alert you to an attack on free speech” and raises the concern that the proposed changes “would prohibit Americans from viewing content published by Members of Congress on websites that are not ‘approved’ by the Committee on House Administration.” Doesn’t mention that it’s a limitation on official content. Doesn’t mention that the limitation already exists under current CHA rules and regulations. Doesn’t mention that the recommendations apply only to video content. Pretty much leaves the facts behind early and never looks back.

Finally, I found my way to Rep. Capuano’s rebuttal of the earlier “Freedom Alert”. Indeed, he makes very clear just what I’d read in his original letter: loosening restrictions, video only, intended to prevent subtle abuses. Stand down, mighty Twitter militia; the country’s freedom is just as safe as it was yesterday. No, really.

I won’t comment on whether I think the current rules are too restrictive; I’ve not read them all, so I can’t say. Instead, I’ll note that Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama all engaged in many electronic town halls, and are even engaging (by proxy) in a Twitter-based debate. I get emails from Rep. Pete Stark all the time; he comes by at least twice a year to listen to me and my neighbors gripe and answer our questions. I can get updates of action on the floor of the House of Representatives via Twitter. _ I don’t feel like my Congress is limited in any meaningful way from communicating with me _ and, frankly, I’m not sure I want them to be tempted by the distraction that Twitter can offer. Maybe that’s what got Rep. Boehner all fired up in the first place; seems he’s been able to tweet just fine for more than a year and even post not-official-House content on YouTube. He doesn’t seem at all limited, really.

I’ll also observe that I believe we should be properly thoughtful in changing regulations that limit the freedom of action of our elected Representatives. If there’s one thing this whole episode has made abundantly clear to me, it’s that transparency and openness are better served when we reach in for information of our choosing, not when they push out the information they want us to have.

Update: Erin Kotecki Vest (aka queenofspain) at BlogHer got the same vibe and came to much the same conclusion.

Update: I didn’t realize when I wrote this that Tim O’Reilly feels differently. His post adds one unverified fact: he states that it’s currently against the CHA rules to tweet from the House floor. It also reduces the purpose of CHA rules to “decorum.” I find that difficult to swallow.

Update: I’ve found the CHA’s Member Handbook. The relevant sections seem to be pages 44-47; I don’t see anything there which prohibits tweeting from the floor. I’m going to keep looking for a more complete ruleset.

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09 July 2008