PJ Media

Congress Debates Muzzling Congressmen Online

A bitter debate over the revision of arcane rules in the House of Representatives could set a precedent for how the U.S. Congress may try to regulate social media and the blogosphere in the future. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) ignited a storm of online fury this week when he announced on the microblogging service Twitter that House Democrats were poised to ban members of Congress from using social media tools or posting online without prior committee consent, and then only on designated “official” external websites.

Culberson referred to a letter of proposed rule changes by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA) sent to Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA), chair of the House Administration Committee. In a press release, Capuano heatedly denied that his proposals would result in censorship, asserted that they were limited to the posting of videos and were a “loosening” of the old rules, and stated that his primary concern was preventing “commercialization” and revising rules “without selling the House of Representatives to the highest bidder.” In turn, Culberson disputed Capuano and claimed the rules as written would result in drastic restrictions on the use of social media by representatives, arguing “Congress often regulates what they don’t understand.”

Capuano’s rule changes received mixed reviews from experts in the online community. While defended by Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, who accurately pointed out that the existing rules were actually worse, Shlok Vaidya, a Washington energy security analyst and blogger, dismissed them as a prescription for a “Congressional walled garden.” Mashable.com ‘s Mark Hopkins flatly derided the intent, stating, “The upshot is that Michael Capuano is for some reason uneasy or afraid of the shift toward openness in access to our nation’s legislators made possible by social media and … he aims to have it cut off at the head.”

Nor was one of the leading Web 2.0 experts, Clay Shirky, reassured either, writing at Open House Project: “They can enforce it the way we enforce parking rules, which is to miss most violations, and then bring in draconian enforcement of enough violations to have a chilling effect. This will also allow the Rules Committee to wield enforcement selectively as a stick.” Representative Capuano, who has described the internet as “a necessary evil,” would be one of the enforcers and he is part of a larger Democratic House leadership whose speaker, Nancy Pelosi, also supports a revival of the long-defunct “Fairness Doctrine” that made it unprofitable for broadcast networks to permit robust political expression on air.

There is certainly a legitimate and longstanding interest in preventing the misuse of federal employees or funds by prohibiting them from having any connection to campaign activities, a point on which Republicans and Democrats can easily agree. Furthermore, Capuano is correct to call the current rules “antiquated” and more restrictive, on paper at least, than his proposals. However, the old rules have been widely ignored by congressmen and have never been enforced, which left members of the House free to post online and engage in virtual interaction as they pleased. Enforcing the new, somewhat milder restrictions, as Capuano intends to do, amounts to a severe regime of prior restraint on speech.

More ominous still would be the precedent of the U.S. government designating “official” external websites — imagine having the power to select “official” newspapers — that would have to hew to House regulations and be as free as possible from political or commercial advertising. Given the ubiquity of blogads, most blogs, bulletin boards, and discussion forums would be shut out of the conversation with our nation’s elected officials. Essentially, Capuano is demanding that the internet adapt itself to the House of Representatives instead of the House adapting to the reality of the internet.

An elaborate and exclusionary system to post official material from congressmen, with a partisan leadership serving as the gatekeepers, is not in the public interest. Congressmen and senators need new rules that will facilitate and encourage them to interact more freely with constituents using social media, not less. The U.S. Congress, whose public approval rating is at historic lows, would benefit from adopting more transparency and greater interactivity with the American public who live outside of the beltway.

Toward that end, Rep. Culberson has filed a letter of his own, with Speaker Pelosi, asking for new media to be treated no differently by the House than is the old media, which also carries commercial political advertising — in short, a “sunshine” policy. The power here, though, is entirely in the hands of House Democrats, but the decisions they make will have a lasting impact. There is no better route to regulating everyone’s political speech online than habituating our elected officials to accept such controls themselves.

It would be an impressive achievement if partisanship could be set aside in an election year and the House hold hearings, inviting real experts in social media like Robert Scoble, Howard Rhinegold, Clay Shirky, Chris Brogan, and others to testify and offer their best advice. Together, Democrats, Republicans, and the online community could craft rules for the House that are simple, technologically adaptive, politically neutral, and most importantly, respectful of America’s constitutional traditions of democratic accountability and unfettered public debate.