Congress Atwitter Over Members' Use of Social Networking, Video Sites

| Fri Jul. 11, 2008 10:09 AM EDT

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Government isn't exactly on the leading edge of the technological revolution. The GAO reported yesterday that several federal agencies still rely on "paper and file" systems to store emails. And John McCain, devoted Luddite that he is, has admitted he doesn't know how to use a computer. But even for members of Congress who do know a thing or two about technology, their ability to use it to communicate with constituents is restricted by arcane congressional rules—rules that are now at the center of a partisan slug fest on Capitol Hill.

Suppose you're a congressman, and you'd like to post a periodic video message on your website updating constituents on your activities. You film it, post it on YouTube, and embed a link on your homepage. It's that easy, right? Wrong. By including YouTube content on your page, you'd find yourself in violation of policies that pre-date the Internet by a couple hundred years.

An obscure 6-member, bipartisan panel called the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards (also known as the "Franking Commission"), adhering to rules established in 1789, has long regulated congressional communications, making sure that federal dollars are used only for nonpartisan purposes and not for political proselytizing, which must instead come out of individual members' campaign funds—a reasonable enough idea in an earlier time, but one that ignores dramatic changes in the way people communicate in our Twitter age of hyperconnectivity. The regulations are in desperate need of revision, and on that point members of both parties agree. But the devil is in the details... and it's those details that have ignited a breathless exchange of amped-up rhetoric between Democrats and Republicans in recent weeks.

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