GOP Joins the Twittering Masses

In the minority, Republicans embrace a new political tool: Twitter.

February 2, 2009, 7:48 PM

Feb. 3, 2009— -- President George W. Bush wasn't exactly what you'd call an active user of "the Internets."

And, during the presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain admitted his own lukewarm relationship with the computer.

But now that the GOP is without a branch of government to call its own, Republicans in Congress are turning to technology's latest trend to re-establish their political power, 140 characters at a time.

Fifty members of Congress use the micro-blogging service Twitter to communicate with constituents, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan watchdog group that advocates for greater transparency through technology.

One might think that the party of our BlackBerry-wielding, text-happy president would be the one to lead the way in this ever-expanding Twitter-verse.

But, in Congress, it appears that, according to Sunlight, Twittering Republicans outnumber their Democratic counterparts almost 2 to 1.

"It is ironic, but they're in the process of rebranding themselves," Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University, told, adding that Republicans partly attribute their loss in November to Barack Obama's tech-savviness.

"Because they're the party of the outs, it behooves them to open the government," he said.

Twitter is an especially convenient way to communicate with potentially thousands of people at once because it lets posters "tweet" from cell phones, smartphones and computers. All tweets -- 140-character messages -- are sent to the user's Twitter page online, but others can sign up to receive them via their own cell phones, smartphones and computers.

But, until October 2008, this and other components of the Web 2.0 frenzy were technically off-limits to members of Congress.

The rules governing Congressional communication with constituents -- known as Franking rules -- prohibited the use of third-party sites, such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

But, determined to "Let Our Congress Tweet," the Sunlight Foundation waged a Twitter-based campaign to bring the U.S. government into the 21st century. The group started actively urging Congress to alter its rules in 2007 and, as Twitter gained popularity, the foundation ramped up its efforts in 2008. By October, both the House and Senate had removed their restrictions.

"[This was] a real step forward for the country," said Micah Sifry, co-founder and editor of, a group blog that tracks the relationship between technology and the opening up of government. "It's making a little bit clearer what our public officials do all day."

In addition to clarifying an often mysterious legislative process, Sifry pointed out that Twitter is also creating a new kind of public record.

"It's interesting because it does establish an additional baseline," Sifry said. "They can later try to obscure it, but one thing that's very cool about the Web is that it doesn't forget that easily."

Twitter as Protest Tool

Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, is widely known as one of the most prolific "tweeters" on Capitol Hill. He has 6,080 followers and usually posts several messages a day.

Since May 2008, he's come to the House floor armed with both a BlackBerry and a video camera-equipped Nokia, brazenly flouting rules that prohibited the use of cell phones on the House floor.

"If we are conducting the public's business, it is our obligation as representatives to shine sunlight in every nook and cranny of that meeting," he told

For him, Twitter isn't just a way to show Americans how the "sausage is made," it's a way to reveal a process he thinks is shrouded in secrecy.

"The deepest, darkest hole in America is the House floor under Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Culberson told

The bailout and stimulus bills, he said, were written in "total secrecy," with limited opportunity for amendments and debate.

"The power of social media can also expose the hypocrisy of the house leadership's public commitment to openness and transparency," Culberson said.

Last August, to protest House Democrats' decision to recess without discussing a pending energy drill, Culberson and other Republicans stayed on the House floor to make their statements.

When the Democratic leadership cut the microphones and camera, Culberson used Twitter and his phone's video camera to keep the public informed.

But Democrats bristle at the notion that the House leadership has not equally supported transparency.

"We're trying to open the entire process up," Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, told, adding that they post bills online well before they're voted on and have changed House rules to enable more communication. "We understand the power of new media."

No Press, No Staff, No Twitter?

Brad Bauman, communications director for another active tweeter, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, told that he credits House leadership with the increasing transparency of the House.

"I don't think there has ever been a more open Congress in the history of the body," he said.

But though an open government is in everyone's best interest, is it possible that too much openness is a bad thing?

Last week, during President Obama's "closed door meeting" about the stimulus bill with members of the House, a few members posted messages to their Twitter pages.

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., sent his constituents just one message at the start of the meeting: "President Obama is speaking to House Republicans right now on Democratic stimulus bill."

But Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., posted eight messages during the meeting with the president.

"Tough sell here at GOP Conf. for the President on the stimulus package. His sincerity is helping him, though. An impressive fellow," Inglis wrote as the meeting kicked off.

Although none of the posts were especially detailed -- and were mostly positive -- they did clue in readers to the content of a conversation that excluded staff and members of the press.

"Good question about small % of infrastructure spending in his stimulus package. He says they've got infrastructure that's shovel ready," Inglis posted.

Inglis and Flake were not available to speak with, but Culberson, who also attended the meeting, said there was no indication that anything that was said was confidential.

He didn't tweet until the meeting was over but said it was because he came in late and wasn't sure of the ground rules that had been established at the start of the meeting.

"Every meeting is different," he said. "It's just like common sense and common courtesy."

Rep. Jeff Chaffetz, R-Utah, a freshman congressman and avid Twitterer also waited until after the meeting to tweet.

"Fundamentally, I believe that more sunshine is better than less, but it's a question of fairness," he said.

He tweeted before and after the meeting but thought it might be impolite to post messages while the president was talking. While he said he likes his messages to "be as real time as possible," he also said he tries to refrain from tweeting on the floor and during committee.

While there was no indication from the White House or Democratic leadership that the closed door tweeting was problematic, Democratic staffers told that as tools like Twitter evolve, it's possible that congressional rules could also evolve.

It's a Brave New World

"This is all a brave new world. They have to figure out the rules," Boston University's Whalen told

While there's always been leaking, instantaneous leaking, that could potentially reach thousands of people at one go, could present a host of new problems.

For example, when national security matters are under discussion, privacy is an utmost concern. And, Whalen wondered, given all the deal-making on Capitol Hill, will the possibility of a tweeted conversation make people less inclined to come to the table?

"Frankly, what is confidentiality? There's going to have to be a redefinition of it," Whalen said.

But, ultimately, John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, told that the new openness is a sign of significant reform.

"Both sides are trying to claim transparency," Wonderlich said. "We're delighted by that tension.

"It's another interesting example of where technology takes lines that are well-established and makes us re-examine how those boundaries apply in new contexts," he said.

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