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Why Congress NEEDS to be tweeting

April 29, 2009

claire-mccaskill-twitterA few months back I started writing a post questioning whether members of Congress really need to be Tweeting. Especially if their Tweets are particularly snarky. That post, like about 75% of the posts I start writing, never saw the light of day because I never completed that idea.

But then last week Matt Bai of the New York Times slammed politicians who use Twitter, most notably Senator Claire McCaskill. “The capital might be a better place if it became a Twitter-free zone,” Bai wrote, “a city where people spent more time talking to the guy serving the coffee and less time informing the world that the coffee had, in fact, been served.”

Then Senator McCaskill responded on her Tumblr blog (really, she has a Tumblr, which is worth noting in and of itself): “I tweet an average of 4 to 5 times a day.  This has become a welcome discipline for me in Washington. As I am walking to a hearing, or riding the tram over for a vote, I think of what I want to tell the folks at home about my work or life. This, I believe, is a fairly decent way to stay connected. After all, I’m in Washington to work for them and this process reminds me of it several times a day.

Senator McCaskill was also on a panel last week at the Politics Online conference in Washington, which I was fortunate enough to attend (thanks to the wonderful Julie Germany). On the panel, she and three other Members of Congress discussed how they use Twitter to stay connected with their constituents. All of them manage their own Twitter accounts and love the direct connection it gives them to the people — without reporters or communications staff in between them. All of them also read all their replies – they may not have time to respond to everything, but they read them, and it gives them an important window into the minds of their constituents, allowing them to know what the people are thinking.

The Members of Congress on the panel also talked about the frustrations they have run into sometimes in dealing with the other hundreds of Members of Congress who are not using Twitter and other new media tools to communicate with their constituents. Most elected officials haven’t gotten on the new media train yet. Most of them still don’t see the value in it. It’s not unlike the general population really — most normal people still don’t get the value of Twitter, either.

Bai also complains about other politicians, like Craig Fugate, the head of FEMA, who recently tweeted:

craig-fugate-twitter

To which Bai responded in his article: “Which kind of makes you wonder: if the head of FEMA feels that disoriented buying a latte near the White House, what’s going to happen during a tornado?”

But Bai, and the other old media types like him who won’t stop complaining about how Washington is all a-twitter, don’t really get it. Elected officials may be elected officials, but they’re human beings too – and were chosen by the people to run our government. That doesn’t make them any less human, and the beauty of new media is that you get unfiltered access to these politicians and get to feel more connected to them. They step out from behind the curtain of press secretaries and communications staff and mainstream media and give you direct, unfiltered access to them.

So what if the head of FEMA had a stressful morning? Being the head of FEMA doesn’t mean you don’t experience the same normal moments that average people experience, or that you’re any less human than them. Hiding those moments behind a curtain isn’t productive, nor does it give people any more confidence that you can do your job better when there’s a tornado. And anyone who expects politicians to operate with secrecy rather than transparency is suggesting something ridiculous, as Bai does.

But politicians using Twitter are informing their constituents of what they’re doing in Congress (and why), provoking policy discussions, and most importantly, listening to what their constituents are saying and using that feedback as they continue their work in Congress. I’d say that’s a pretty good case for why every member of Congress should be getting on the new media train.

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6 comments

  1. Great post. Awhile ago I ran in a different crowd – a very political crowd – and the biggest lesson I learned is that politicians are indeed human and are doing the best they can. They have a responsibility, of course, but any way that can allow us to communicated and engage with them without the bureaucracy is a plus in my book.


  2. I’m glad you decided to publish this post. I agree that politicians using Twitter is a great thing. We are finally able to get information straight from them, not through the filter of the media or their communications staff. What’s more, it’s kind of cool to know that the head of FEMA had a morning when he really needed a cup of coffee, just like the rest of us. Great post!


  3. […] Anyone who expects politicians to operate with secrecy rather than transparency is suggesting someth…, @nishachittal Posted to: […]


  4. Hi Nisha, I got here through Modite’s Agree & Disagree links. I am a late adopter of Twitter but can clearly see the positive potential social and professional applications of the program. While I agree with Bai that some Tweets seem unnecessary, I disagree that DC gov’t should stop or that the seeming banalities of life should not be Tweeted. The question to Bai is, if he is so bothered by it, why is he reading?


    • That’s a good point. Why is Bai reading if he doesn’t like it? I’d say he believes it’s a fad that politicians should be “above.” Or something…


  5. I think there is a limit though, maybe it depends most on the context…

    For example:

    http://theclaritypost.com/2009/05/18/when-the-vox-populi-twitters-and-texts/



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