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Are Congressional "New Media" Clubs Missing the Point?

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, August 26 2009

As a friend on Capitol Hill pointed out to me yesterday, even the Congressional Bourbon Caucus has an issue to rally around. It's not a drinking club -- they're committed to protecting and promoting the production of that wonderfully delicious elixir. (Your country thanks you.) A similar thing can be said of the African Great Lakes Caucus, the Parkinson's Disease Caucus, the Shellfish Caucus -- even the Congressional Baby Caucus (seriously), which is of course united by their great love for all things baby. (The full and rather varied list of House caucuses is here.)

But as the Republican New Media Caucus and the new Joe Sestak-led Congressional Caucus on Blogging and New Media take their tentative first steps, the important open question is becoming whether these members of Congress appreciate that there are, indeed, real policy and political issues at stake. Getting more members of Congress tweeting away is one thing. But there's a bigger opportunity that these "new media" caucuses can seize. That's re-architecting the political process in ways that expand the participation of the citizenry and empower voters with greater knowledge of what Congress is up to, even and perhaps especially when it becomes politically uncomfortable to do so.

As things stand, though, these caucuses look a lot like self-involved efforts to upgrade the messaging operations of Hill staff.

In announcing the establishment of the new Congressional Caucus on Blogging and New Media yesterday, Rep. Sestak, Democrat from Pennsylvania, said that he hopes that the new organization will "bridge the gap between online communicators and Congress." The group, open to Republicans and Democrats alike, is, says Sestak, meant to be a "forum for initiating and maintaining a productive discourse between Members of Congress and bloggers -- among others -- by establishing a consistent stream of communication between this growing community and their representatives." Sestak went on: "As Americans increasingly turn to blogs as a primary source of political news, insight and information, it is more important than ever that Congress understand the challenges and benefits that are presented by new online mediums. I look forward to working with you to establish this forum for blogging, new media and online grassroots."

If you think it's a coincidence that Sestak happens to be running for the Senate seat currently held by Senator Arlen Specter, you're more trusting than I. The Specter vs. Sestak race promises to be high-profile in the blogosphere, and the two men recently engaged in a back-to-back candidate forum at the Netroots Nation gathering of bloggers in Pittsburgh.

A handful of forward-thinking House Republicans recently launched their own new media club, under the banner of the Republican New Media Caucus. Rep. John Culberson (TX), whom you might remember for his show-stopping demonstration of the magic of live-streaming web video to a somewhat perplexed Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer, is among the caucus' founders, as are Reps. Buck McKeon of California, Bob Latta of Ohio, and Rob Wittman of Virginia. The RNMC was established, said the members, to help the GOP figure out how to use new media to better effect by providing "new and innovative ways to use technology to carry our message to more of our constituents" and "education and training opportunities to Members and staff to implement new media technologies into their overall communications strategy."

What's encouraging, though, is that the Republican New Media Caucus' mission statement appreciates that change must come from within. To that end, the Republicans pledge to "provide the necessary leadership to ensure the House of Representatives keeps up with advancing technology by working with the CAO [Chief Administrative Officer] and the Committee on House Administration."

The reason that's encouraging is because if both the Republican and Democrat-led new media organizations, the first of their kind within the House, are simply self-serving clubs dedicated to winning the YouTube-Facebook-Twitter arms race, an opportunity will have been lost. There's a strong argument to be made that calling something a "new media" caucus is already getting off on the wrong foot. Why not brand these new groups something along the lines of the "Openness and Participation Caucus"? Nope, there's not one already. And that approach would recognize the fact that the end-game here is a different kind of politics. The House has come a long way in recent years, but the institution is still clinging to ways of doing business that shut the public out -- a disservice to the public and elected leaders alike. An Openness Caucus would be a recognition that, from the public's perspective, the issue isn't new media. The issue is new politics, whether it happens through the web or telephone or carrier pigeon. (Photo by jcolman under a Creative Commons licence)