Monday, July 14, 2008

Forget about the right to tweet; what about the right to vote?

Last Thursday, Biz Stone at Twitter shared a quote from

Congress should join us where we the people are talking, sharing and networking – online. As Congress reconsiders the restrictions placed on their Internet use, you can tell Congress to embrace the communication technologies that we already use.

When you follow through to the website itself, you see this:

Is Congress afraid of the Internet?

By Friday, Media Bullseye ran the following headline:

No, Congress Is Not Trying to Ban Twitter

Headlines, headlines, headlines.

But headlines have their problem. In their attempt to truncate everything into a short phrase, and in their attempt to attract attention, headlines manage to oversimplify and distort things.

(Actually, a tweet can do the same thing. But I digress.)

But once you get past the headlines, you can figure out what is really happening. Media Bullseye itself links to Technosailor, which links to a letter from Michael Capuano, Congressman from Massachusetts. Here is the text of the letter, courtesy Representative Capuano himself (other versions are not quotable):

June 24, 2008

The Honorable Robert Brady
Committee on House Administration
1309 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515-6157

Dear Chairman Brady,

I am writing as Chair of the Congressional Commission on Mailing Standards (Franking Commission). As you are aware, the Franking Commission is currently reviewing the federal laws, House Rules, regulations of the Committee on House Administration (CHA), and the regulations of the Franking Commission as they apply to official communications. Members and staff of the Franking Commission have been meeting informally to discuss various issues that have been brought to the Commission's attention. Recently, we reviewed a matter under the jurisdiction of CHA and I would like to bring several recommendations on this matter to your attention.

As you are aware, current CHA regulations have been interpreted to prohibit Members from posting official content outside of the domain. Unfortunately, many Members who wish to display video on their websites have found that the existing tools available within the House to do so are not user-friendly or efficient, and that in addition, server storage space within the House is currently insufficient to meet the growing demand for video. The House Leadership and your committee began to examine solutions to this situation last year and the Franking Commission recently engaged in detailed discussions of possible solutions. Specifically, we discussed the ongoing effort to establish designated House "channels" on external sites. This would allow a Member to post video material on a qualifying external website and then embed the video on his or her Member site from this external site. The concept of an "official" external channel has been adopted by other government agencies and it could be available to the House in short order if the relevant CHA regulations and practice are amended. I am pleased to forward recommendations on this matter to CHA for review and consideration.

Members of the Commission support revising the applicable CHA regulations to allow Members to post official video material outside of the domain. However, I respectfully submit the following recommendations for your review and consideration, should CHA decide to move forward with such a change. I believe that these conditions will help ensure that the House presence on such external sites conforms with acceptable standards that reflect favorably on the dignity, propriety, and decorum of the House. It is also my understanding that at least one external site and potentially many others have the technology available to meet the following conditions:

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.

Please note that nothing in these recommendations should be construed as a recommendation to change the current House rules and regulations governing the content of official communications.

While the above recommendations will help CHA as it seeks to provide House Members with the ability to post official video materials on the Web in an efficient and economical way, further changes to CHA regulations and practice may be necessary to account for the continual emergence of new technologies. I encourage CHA to view these recommendations as the first step in a process towards modernizing the regulations that govern communications of Members.

In addition, I encourage CHA to continue to review the services available through the Office of Web Assistance to determine to what extent OWA has the capability to provide video services to Members within House.

The Committee on House Administration has already demonstrated significant leadership in addressing the demand for these services. I encourage the Committee to proceed forthwith to promulgate such regulations as may be appropriate and look forward to working with you.

As always, thank you for your consideration and leadership.


Michael E. Capuano
Congressional Commission on Mailing Standards

The reason that Capuano posted the letter in full was because he wanted to respond to some of the statements that were made about the letter.

First, the ONLY item we seek to address is LOOSENING existing rules to allow Members to post videos as a first step toward making the rules meet our constituents' expectations regarding how they communicate with us in the 21st century. This was completely ignored during the years that Republicans controlled Congress while the internet grew exponentially. It is currently against House rules to post video on any site with commercial or political advertising or to use taxpayer-funded resources to post outside of the domain.

We are not currently seeking to address anything other than video — not blog postings, online chats or any other written form of communication anywhere on the internet. Any assertion to the contrary is a lie. Perhaps the people spreading those lies should take some time to actually read the letter I wrote....

Now, of course one can say that while Capuano didn't intend to restrict tweets, the wording in the letter implied that the controls would apply to all content, not just video content.

Only one issue - the bullet points in the letter are not the proposed regulatory text. As far as I know, no one has even written the proposed regulatory text. Presumably someone with half a brain (and yes, there are people with half a brain on Capitol Hill) will take a moment to insert the word "video" into the proposed regulation, so that Congresspeople can still tweet (well, when Twitter is up).

In my view, the weekend hoopla over Congressional tweeting is a tempest in a teapot. Yes, Congressional rules are antiquated. Yes, people are working to correct them.

And even if someone did try to shut tweeting down, many high school students have proven that it's possible to use electronic devices when you're not supposed to do so. If a Congressperson wants to tweet, he or she will figure out how to do it, should any ban ever be implemented.

Now if you really want to get angry about a Federal policy that shuts down the voices of the people, why not read about DC Vote?

Currently, more than half a million Americans living in our nation's capital have no congressional voting rights. They have no vote for jobs, no vote for health care, no vote for education or any issue debated and voted on by the U.S. Congress.

Founded in 1998, DC Vote works to secure full voting rights in Congress for the residents of the District of Columbia by:

Informing Congress and the American public about this injustice

Formulating solutions with coalition partners and elected officials

Promoting change based on the principle that a government is democratic only when people have the ability, through freely elected leaders, to shape the laws under which they must live

Certainly, one can see how some Republicans could object to this on narrow political grounds, since DC has tended to vote Democratic over the years. (Personally, I don't care if they vote Communist; it's the right thing to do to allow the District of Columbia to have voting privileges in the House...and the Senate.)

Even the move to get DC voting rights in the House, although having bipartisan support, ended up failing.

The DC Voting Rights Act is the bipartisan consensus bill sponsored in the House by Representatives by Tom Davis (R-VA) and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) that would grant District residents one voting member in the House.

On Thursday, April 19, 2007, the DC Voting Rights Act (H.R. 1905) passed the House of Representatives 241-177. This is the first time in a generation that the House has passed a bill that works toward bringing voting representation to the nearly 600,000 Americans living in the nation's capital.

On May 1, 2007, Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Bob Bennett (R-UT) introduced the DC Voting Rights Act (S. 1257) in the Senate. On Wednesday, June 13, 2007, the DC Voting Rights Act (S. 1257) passed in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs with broad bipartisan support 9-1.

On September 18, 2007, although a majority of the Senate voted to move the bill to a final vote, 57-42, a minority of Senators led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) were able to maintain a filibuster.

I'm sad to report that McCain was among the naysayers. Republican and Independent Senators who favored the bill included

Bennett (R-UT)
Coleman (R-MN)
Collins (R-ME)
Hatch (R-UT)
Lieberman (ID-CT)
Lugar (R-IN)
Sanders (I-VT)
Snowe (R-ME)
Specter (R-PA)
Voinovich (R-OH)

But it wasn't enough.

And bear in mind that this bill didn't even address DC representation in the Senate. The one Democrat who didn't favor the bill was Max Baucus from Montana; you would think that Baucus would understand that small states should be entitled to a Representative and two senators.

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