Critics say franking rules should change to suit the age of Twitter

Congress should re-evaluate the franking rules to further accommodate Twitter and other social-media tools, according to several critics.

They say rules regulating content are too rigid and outdated, preventing lawmakers from taking full advantage of Twitter to share candid observations and communicate better with constituents. ­­­

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The franking rules govern the content and timing of publicly funded official communications on behalf of congressional offices. But the rules were drafted to regulate older types of communication, such as newsletters and mass mailings.

The House and Senate took a significant step in approving official social media use last year, spurring more members to use the sites. They did not, however, update content rules to fit social media’s unique characteristics.

“We have to have rules that allow members to communicate with their constituents,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute, who thinks existing franking rules should be loosened for Twitter. “The goal should always be to allow members to communicate naturally in new media.”

Strand, who served as ex-Sen. Jim Talent ‘s (R-Mo.) chief of staff, said that the legalization of official social media without updated content rules has created an awkward environment for lawmakers who Tweet.

“It’s a little bit like trying to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” he said. “But it’s better than two feet in the past.”

Ken Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP who runs its political law practice, cautioned that a revision of the rules should strike a middle ground, maintaining provisions that keep content civil and respectful.

“The traditional franking rules should be retooled to fit the advent of these new social networking devices,” he said. “The rules shouldn’t be as restrictive or wooden as some of the franking guidelines are currently.”

But Gross said new rules should not allow lawmakers to post all personal or campaign content on official Twitter accounts. Strand agreed with his sentiment.

House rules governing franked content explicitly bar “personal or biographical matter” pertaining to lawmakers’ personal lives. The rules also outlaw from official content anything other than material related to the “performance of official duties” and lay down guidelines against political matter.

The Senate’s Internet Services Usage Rules also contain prohibitions against personal and political Web content.

Committee on House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson said in a statement that the panel was not working on drafting new content rules but that “as new media vehicles develop and evolve, we’ll continually review their impact on existing rules.”

Senate Rules Committee spokesman Brian Fallon also said that panel is “reviewing existing regulations to determine what changes might be needed to cover new kinds of Internet-based services and third-party websites.” But he did not respond to a later request for comment on changes to content guidelines.

A small proportion of lawmakers use campaign or unofficial Twitter accounts, which have looser guidelines regulating content.

According to TweetCongress, a database of congressional Tweeters, 21 percent of the 177 lawmakers on Twitter exclusively have unofficial or campaign accounts. Of the remaining 143 Tweeting lawmakers, 14 percent use both a personal and official account.

The less common unofficial accounts sometimes contain more interaction between followers and lawmakers. The University of Maryland study rated Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) the top Tweeters in their respective chambers for exchanging messages with their followers.

Both happen to have unofficial accounts.

McCaskill’s Twitter feed contains a mix of messages about her personal life, which include her opinions on the St. Louis Cardinals and trips to Target, and replies to her followers about policy issues.

Culberson, who is a member of the GOP New Media Caucus, recently Tweeted instructions to a follower on how to access the full version of the House healthcare bill he recently posted on his website. He also shared details about his recovery from a virus.

Sometimes, the official and unofficial Twitter sites collide.

In August, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) used his campaign Twitter account to criticize Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for “speading [sic] myths about healthcare reform and imaginary ‘death panels.’ “ Grassley used his official Senate account to respond that Specter had it wrong.

“So change ur last Tweet Arlen,” he replied.

Rick Shapiro, a consultant to the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, said that rules have not been changed partially due to the fast-paced nature of technology.

“Technology evolves faster than the rules legislatures and others make to regulate it,” he said. “It’s kind of an ongoing trend of what technology does,” he said.

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Shapiro surmised the rules may change as Twitter becomes a “standard mode of communication among members of Congress.” The 177 Tweeting lawmakers make up only 33 percent of Congress, a proportion that has grown quickly since last year.

But Strand said rule changes may come sooner, since a greater number of constituents are using social media to communicate with lawmakers.

Regardless, Strand claimed the rule changes might not be a silver bullet in terms of encouraging lawmakers to reach out to all constituents.
“Part of the problem is the way they build Twitter lists. Its nature is almost better suited for sending messages to base supporters.”