Earlier today, Rep. John Culberson’s blog alerted us to an attempt by the Democratic House leadership to stifle various forms of electronic communication by members. Here’s a statement from the Republican leadership, via the blog:
Millions of Americans today utilize free, unregulated and uncensored websites like YouTube on a daily basis to not only obtain information from their elected leaders about what’s going on in their government, but to also give feedback and easily share that information with others. The advent of new media technology has empowered American citizens with real-time information about the policy debates and actions being undertaken by Congress. This has increasingly forced Congress to become more transparent and made it easier for American citizens to hold their elected leaders accountable.
The Committee on House Administration is considering a new rule that could bring this trend to a screeching halt. The Committee is considering the adoption of new rules that would require outside websites such as YouTube to comply with House regulations before Members of Congress could post videos on them. Under the proposal, the House Administration Committee would develop a list of “approved” websites, and Members of Congress could post content only such websites. The rule has been proposed by the Democratic chairman of the Commission on Mailing Standards, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA), and is being considered for adoption by the Committee on House Administration, chaired by Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA). A copy of Rep. Capuano’s letter is available at http://gopleader.gov/UploadedFiles/Capuano_letter.PDF.
If the proposed rule is adopted, the free flow of information over the Internet between Americans and their representatives will be significantly curtailed. Americans who currently use free websites like YouTube to obtain uncensored daily information about congressional policy debates will instead be forced to go to websites “approved” by the House Administration Committee in order to continue getting such information. This would amount to new government censorship of the Internet, by a panel of federal officials that is neither neutral nor independent.
As noted previously, Culberson has actively embraced twitter and other web communication technology, and as one might expect, he has been blasting away on twitter at the effort by the Democratic House leadership to stifle such communications.
While we can understand why the Democratic House leadership might want to limit its exposure to the public right now, as web geeks we kind of like the fact that some elected officials have embraced… well, web geekery… to communicate with constituents.
Shouldn’t we be encouraging more such freewheeling interaction with constituents, not discouraging it?
If you feel strongly about this matter, one way or the other, let Rep. Culberson know on his twitter page. You’ll probably even get a response — at least for now.
UPDATE: For balance, we offer this take on the controversy.
UPDATE (07-09-2008): And here’s a counterpoint to the point directly above. We also noticed that Rep. Culberson commented on the post:
Heres how the House leadership will use this rule to control where and what I say and even exercise influence over your website/blog etc
If the Ds rule change were in effect today, before I could post this, your website/blog would have to be preapproved as complying with House rules, my post would require a disclaimer that it was “produced by a House office for official purposes,” and the CONTENT of my post would have to be preapproved by the House Franking Committee as complying with “existing content rules and regulations.”
This is a violation of your First Amendment rights and mine, and is an outrageous attempt by House leadership to stifle and control you and me. If Rs were in charge I would be just as outraged – forget the party label – I do not want the federal gov’t/House of Representatives certifying your website or the content of my posts. I am writing this post personally, in my official capacity, so it would fall precisely under their new rule and you and I would both be in violation unless we subjected ourselves and my words to their prior approval/editing.
I am always ready to admit I am wrong but I am an attorney and this is what the letter means.
This is a story worth following because I am going to continue to vigorously exercise my First Amendment rights on every social media outlet I can reach. It is my right as an American and my duty as a representative.
It’s worth noting that this sort of immediate response might not be allowed under a strict interpretation of the rules that are being proposed. And that’s unfortunate.
UPDATE 2 (07-09-2008): The good folks at The Sunlight Foundation, who are advocates for openness, transparency, and accountability in government (as we are as well!), have come down solidly against unnecessary restrictions on web communications. They have also started a new campaign, Let Our Congress Tweet.
For some of us, this is about principles (of transparency and openness), not personalities or parties.
UPDATE (07-10-2008): Rep. Culberson offers this very thoughtful response to a highly critical blog post. Local hyperpartisans who hate Rep. Culberson and are working to elect his opponent probably won’t find it reasonable or thoughtful, and that’s too bad. As some less strident local bloggers have pointed out, openness and transparency in government (without the need for a House committee to approve content or websites) ought to be common goals.