WASHINGTON - This tweet just in: I’m behind on laundry. President speaking to us now. He’s good salesman, bad product. Running late. Confess I’m getting cranky.
In the microblogging world of Twitter, this is your Congress at work. In bursts of 140 characters or less, Twittering is now all the rage on Capitol Hill. At last count, 121 members are using mobile devices to send updates, or tweets, like the tidbits of information above (taken from actual congressional tweets).
For many leaders, it’s simply a new, one-way communications tool. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sends out tweets that read like summaries of press releases. Sure enough, there’s a link to a news release on most of them.
But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has gained a devoted Twitter following with tweets that are personal and political: “Man, am I tired. Harder than it looks to get the handful of R votes we MUST have and keep the Ds happy.”
That’s an insightful take on how the $787 billion stimulus bill got through the Senate, where Democrats needed three Republicans.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once notoriously computer-averse, has blasted examples of “pork” spending in often sarcastic tweets. Making fun of a fish management project, he mused, “How do you manage fish?”
McCain may have lost the presidency, but he is now Capitol Hill’s Twitter champion. According to TweetCongress.org, which tracks the use of Twitter, McCain now has 332,508 “followers,” people reading his tweets, the most by far in Congress.
When McCain criticized federal spending on San Jose’s Japanese-American Museum, that prompted a tweet-vs.-tweet debate between McCain and Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., on the merits of the project.
This is all a good thing for citizens and their government, said Chris McCroskey, a software executive in Dallas who co-founded TweetCongress.org. The Web site encourages Twitterers to urge members of Congress to use Twitter, and gives members’ Twitter accounts so people can follow them or send them tweets.
“This is engaging people and getting them involved in democracy, using a communications tool that will take off in the next 10 years,” McCroskey said.
Twitter’s invasion of Capitol Hill has not come without controversy. Some thought it was impolite that a half-dozen lawmakers sent tweets during the president’s speech to Congress on Feb. 24. Comedian Stephen Colbert joked that even Barack Obama was doing it: “OMG, totally addressing Congress. LOL Mitch McConnell looks like a turtle.”
McCaskill noted that even her mother thought she was rude to be sending tweets during the speech. “For the record I tweeted bfor, at very beginning & after speech,” she tweeted later.
House Republicans also drew attention for sending tweets during a private meeting with the president on Capitol Hill in January.
And when Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., tweeted from Baghdad upon his arrival in the Green Zone, some bloggers took him to task for breaching security. But Hoekstra said he had previously announced the trip to Baghdad.
Questions of usage and etiquette - like when it’s OK to Twitter - will work themselves out as the medium evolves, said Chris Sacca, a California financier, political activist and one of the original investors in Twitter.
“Part of the genius of Twitter is that it allows users to define it the way they want,” he said.
Some bloggers have mused that Twitter may not be an effective way of communicating with Congress. Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices Online, asked in a recent posting if Twitter had “just become another tool for spamming politicians and decision makers.”
One test of whether Twitter is an effective tool is whether it becomes a genuine two-way street between citizens and Congress. One watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, is asking members to use Twitter as a lobbying tool.
The goal is to nudge senators to finally adopt electronic filing of campaign reports, something that presidential candidates, House members and political action committees already must do. A couple of GOP senators have held up the bill.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who just started using Twitter, received several tweets about the bill, including one from Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist. She quickly signed on to this year’s bill as a co-sponsor.
“Thanks to all who tweeted me about e-filing of campaign finance reports,” she tweeted back.
Twitter is not ideal for lobbying on a complex issue, but its immediacy is useful in reminding senators to sign on to a bill they may already support, said Lisa Rosenberg, a consultant with Sunlight.
“You can’t compel someone to make a decision in 140 characters, but you can get their attention on something they may have forgotten about,” she added.
And Sacca said Twitter is a form of communication that is rare and valuable in Washington: “It has an economy of words. That’s really powerful.”