WASHINGTON – “Good Qs abt bills b4 Congress.”
Or in plain English: “Good questions about bills before Congress.”
The bottom line: Members of Congress have learned to tweet.
And they are not just doing it in their off-time. Members of Congress are using their cell phones while Congress is in session to tweet and text.
“Texting has become a major form of communication,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings,D-Md. “You can text at any time,anywhere.”
Rep. Hank Johnson,D-Ga.,said he notices many members of Congress texting during official business.
“There are some doing some tweeting right there from the House chambers,” Johnson said.
Some members of Congress text to keep in contact with their constituents.
“A lot of my constituents have my e-mail address,” Cummings said. “They’ll e-mail me,and I’ll e-mail them right back.” Cummings said he mostly texts to communicate with people in his office – he uses texts for 90 percent of communications with his office.
Johnson said he tries not to text too much.
“I like to pay close attention to the business at hand,but I’ve done some,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he thinks some members of Congress use texting to communicate with special interest groups.
Cummings said he is often overwhelmed when too many people try to contact him.
“It can be a pain sometimes,” he said.
Johnson said some members of Congress use texts to stir up anger and even violence.
He said a group of protesters chanting,”Kill the bill,” outside the Capitol during the health care vote March 21 was “probably coordinated by a congressman or congresswoman inside,” through texts.
“Republicans were instructed to go to the balcony and stir up the crowd,even to the point of holding signs while standing on the Capitol balcony,” Johnson said. “They were making threats,explicitly and implicitly,to commit violence.”
But Lindsey Mask,spokeswoman for Rep. Buck McKeon,R-Calif.,one of the members of Congress who communicated with protesters on the balcony,said she didn’t think members of Congress were organizing the protesters. McKeon himself doesn’t even use handheld devices to text.
Those who don’t
Not all members of Congress text.
“Boy,I don’t do it,” said Rep. Mike Coffman,R-Colo. “I’m too old to know how to text.” Coffman turned 55 in March.
Others observe texting but don’t participate themselves. Rep. John Olver,D-Mass.,said he sees people using their phones all the time.
“I have no idea if they are texting while using their phone,” Olver said.
Is it allowed?
In the House,texting is perfectly within the rules. Kyle Anderson,communications director for the Committee on House Administration,said in an e-mail “the use of handheld devices is allowed for texting,e-mailing and other forms of non-verbal communication.”
It’s a different story for senators.
Jean Bordewich,staff director for the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration,said texting is not allowed on the floor.
“The Senate rules do not permit it,” she said in an e-mail.
For state legislatures,rules differ depending on the state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,about half of state legislatures have no rules prohibiting electronic device use on the floor. Some states,such as Hawaii,require cell phones to be in silent mode. In other states,including Massachusetts and California,the use of cell phones is prohibited.
Is it worth it?
Johnson said Congress must be careful with this new tool.
“We have to be responsible in terms of how we communicate,” he said. “The ability to communicate is being misused by certain members of Congress to inflame,scare and incite people to engage in threatening and violent behavior.”
Cummings said that,even with its problems,texting is worth it.
“The benefits far outweigh the costs,” Cummings said.
“We’re living in the future,” he said. “We’re living in an amazing time.”
Some members of Congress text more than others.
Rep. John Culberson,R-Texas,updates his Twitter a couple of times a week. And while office aides communicate through Twitter for many members of Congress,Culberson does it himself.
“This is a great way for him to stay in contact with his constituents,and that’s his main job,” said Megan Mitchell,Culberson’s spokeswoman.
Culberson,who represents part of the Houston area,has been using Twitter since 2008. He updates about “everything that’s before Congress,” Mitchell said.
“He’ll try to agree with people or set the record straight,” she said.
Sometimes,constituents text Culberson questions while Congress is in session.
“He’ll sometime ask those questions on the floor,” Mitchell said.
Culberson doesn’t use Twitter only as a means to inform. He uses it to interact.
“It’s not just,‘I’m down on the House floor voting for this,’ ” Mitchell said. “A lot of times it’s a discussion.”
Here’s a sample of some of Culberson’s tweets and responses:
AjntB2Sli: “No to Government run Health Care! No to Cap & Trade! No to FEDERAL FUNDING OF ABORTION! no,nO,NO!!!”
JohnCulberson: “I agree – plus while we are at it,let’s also zero out the czars!”
ToddEpp: “Though I am a progressive,I agree with you. Congress needs to get back to actual declarations of war.”
JohnCulberson: “I agree – although in some cases a formal declaration of war is not possible – such as the War on Terrorists”
JohnCulberson: “My daughter & I helped a neighbor set up her Christmas tree tonight; We plan to get our tree up & decorated Sunday. Good night all!”
JohnCulberson: “I have noticed conservatives are almost uniformly polite thoughtful & respectful & don’t curse – adios”
When Congress was debating an energy bill in August 2008,the House adjourned,over Republicans’ objections,dimmed the lights and shut off the cameras that feed C-SPAN’s broadcasts. Some Republicans stayed on the floor to talk about the issue. But viewers couldn’t see what was happening.
Culberson texted,giving a play-by-play account of the debate.
“He was on the House floor sending messages out,letting people know what the Republicans [were] saying,” Mitchell said.
“He really has found that you can have more of a conversation on Facebook” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said Culberson views texting as an opportunity for government to become more open and responsive.
“If you see it through his eyes,you get a sense of what’s happening on Capitol Hill,” she said.
“He always said,‘It’s a good way to let the sun shine in.’ “