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Jan. 8, 2009, 8:03 a.m.

More online publishing power in Congress’ hands in 2009

The YouTube stars of 2009 could emerge from the U.S. Capitol.

New rules adopted last fall permit members of Congress to maintain websites and post content anywhere on the Internet, freeing them to blog, vlog, Twitter, and otherwise communicate with their constituents in the virtual world. They were previously prohibited from conducting official business — that is, not personal or campaign-related — on third-party websites.

“You’re going to see, over the next year, every senator and congressman having their own miniature C-SPAN studio inside of their office,” predicted Steve Grove, head of news and politics for YouTube, in a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government last fall.

The new regulations were largely overlooked amid the drama of the presidential election, but they are likely to have an immediate effect on political journalism this year; just as social media has changed the reporting of campaigns, it is now poised to alter the coverage of governance. As the 111th Congress convenes for the first time this week, reporters could find themselves in competition with, say, the Facebook pages of the elected officials they cover.

The rules committees in the House and Senate took up the issue after Rep. John Culberson, a web-savvy Republican from Texas, clashed with the arcane edicts of Congress during a fight this summer over offshore oil drilling. “I just learned the Dems are trying to censor Congressmen’s ability to use Twitter Qik YouTube Utterz etc – outrageous and I will fight them,” Culberson tweeted at the time. The Sunlight Foundation took up the cause in a campaign they called “Let Our Congress Tweet.”

Stewart Powell, who covers Culberson for the Houston Chronicle, told me the congressman’s championing of social media, which included streaming live video from the House floor, “was pioneering, and it was a stunt.” Powell predicted that Culberson and other Republicans in Congress would increasingly turn to the web for “insurgent political activities” against the Democratic majority. (Indeed, Twitter was a surprisingly prominent topic in this week’s debate among potential Republican National Committee chairmen.)

Powell doesn’t expect Twittering congressmen to dramatically affect his own reporting, but he has quoted Culberson’s tweets, and the Chronicle’s Washington bureau once considered contacting the congressman over Twitter when they couldn’t reach him by other means.

Though he’s far ahead of most of his colleagues, Culberson is hardly the only member of Congress to embrace micro-blogging. Tweet Congress provides a handy list of about 50, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats. Ohio Republican and House minority leader John Boehner often sounds like he has a staffer and/or robot tweeting for him, while controversial Rep. Michele Bachmann appears to be handling the Twitter duties herself (as in the tweet pictured above).

Senators and representatives still face some strict regulations on conducting official business on third-party websites away from government servers. Perhaps most importantly, they can’t link to their campaign websites or any campaign activities. (That could create some confusion in the 2010 election cycle when elected officials may need, for instance, separate Facebook profiles for their roles as congressman and candidate.) And personal activities are also restricted. “You couldn’t put up photos of your daughter’s birthday party” on Flickr, said Howard Gantman, staff director for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. You can read the new House regulations below, and click here for a PDF of the Senate rules.

Language Adopted by the House Committee on Rules

In addition to their official (house.gov) Web site, a Member may maintain another Web site(s), channel(s) or otherwise post material on third-party Web sites.

The official content of any material posted by the Member on any Web site must be in compliance with Federal law and House Rules and Regulations applicable to official communications and germane to the conduct of the Member’s official and representational duties.

When a link to a Web site outside the Member’s official cite is imbedded on the Member’s official site, the Member’s site must include an exit notice advising the visitor when they are leaving the House. This exit notice must also include a disclaimer that neither the Member nor the House is responsible for the content of the linked site(s).

Chairman is authorized to make technical and conforming changes to facilitate inclusion into the Committees and Member handbooks.

POSTED     Jan. 8, 2009, 8:03 a.m.
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