As Cord noted here a week ago, a letter from Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) suggesting changes to Congress’s rules governing how members may post videos to the Internet stirred a firestorm of commentary that culminated in a letter from Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a New York Times article, an NPR story, and a petition effort from the Sunlight Foundation that can be found at www.LetOurCongressTweet.com. The fact that this brouhaha sparked so much activity is a sign of how important this topic is, and now that the dust has settled a bit we can look at the issue more calmly.
Despite suggestions to the contrary during the initial frenzy, the fact is that the proposed amendments would affect only video and not Twitter or blogging. Also, the proposal, which limits pretty severely where House members may post video, is actually a loosening of current rules. It’s understandable why some folks who are sensitive about online transparency pounced on this like they did, but it’s important to get the facts straight.
That said, it’s an absolute embarrassment that current House rules restrict how representatives link to outside websites. For example, I’ve talked to staff who say that while they would like to link to their member’s constantly updated voting record on GovTrack.us or the Washington Post’s Congress Votes Database, they won’t for fear of violating House rules. (The Open House Project’s report on member web-use restrictions explains in detail how the rules that govern the web and email are based on regulations developed for snail mail.)
To me, what should be the issue is the rationale for the regulations. For example, the rules proposed by Rep. Capuano would allow members to post video to outside hosting services so long as “the official content [is] not be posted on a website or page where it may appear with commercial or political information[.]” The reason seems to be that commercial or political messages anywhere in the vicinity of the official video clip would taint the “dignity, propriety, and decorum of the House.” Capuano explains in a follow-up statement:
Apparently the Republicans spreading these lies would rather operate without rules and open the House to commercialism. Maybe they don’t care if an official video appears next to a political advertisement for Barack Obama or John McCain, creating the appearance of an endorsement. And I guess they don’t care if constituents clicking on their videos will be treated to commercials for anything you can imagine, from the latest Hollywood blockbuster to Viagra. Certainly, advertisements are a reality in today’s world and most people can distinguish. However, it is also a reality that Members of Congress who use taxpayer money to communicate with constituents should be held to the highest possible standard of independence — and the appearance of independence.
With Congress’s approval rating being what it is today, that concern is understandable. However, I think it gives little credit to the American people who, I believe, are capable of identifying advertising when they see it and are capable of withstanding it with their dignity intact. We can watch a congressman speak on Meet the Press and understand perfectly well that an ad for Barrack Obama or Burger King during the commercial break does not imply an endorsement. We can do the same thing on the web.
Additionally, what makes video-sharing sites like YouTube so killer isn’t really the video aspect, but rather the sharing part. The fact that I can take any video on YouTube, Vimeo, Qik, and the many other services out there and embed them on this site where I can start a conversation around them is a powerful thing. Allowed to be used freely these tools could really help members of Congress talk to and listen to their constituents.
A case in point is Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) who’s been a pioneer in using new media tools from inside Congress. He twitters quite regularly and he also uses Qik to live-stream video from his cell phone. Tonight at 7 p.m. he will host a live town hall meeting using Ustream. Basically he’ll be on live video taking questions from anyone who joins the chat room. Now that is leveraging the internet to communicate with the American people.
You can watch the video stream on his Ustream channel (a commercial site which last time I checked has an ad for the Fox Business Channel) or embedded on this website below (a non-commercial site which has ads to the right) or on Culberson’s own House website (a government site which doesn’t have ads). Anyway you watch it, I think you’ll be able to figure out that Culberson is only endorsing his own words. Wouldn’t it be great if more members of Congress communicated directly with the American people like this? At the very least I would hope their own rules would allow them to.