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Could Twitter Change the Math of a Senate Hold?

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, February 5 2010

Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer is blogging out the White House's anger over the news that Republican Sen. Richard Shelby has signaled a hold on 70 or so of President Obama's nominees as he seeks to get favorable treatment on some projects in his home of Alabama. In case you're not sure about how Pfeiffer feels about Shelby's behavior, how post on is titled, "Another Day, Another Disappointing Political Ploy Obstructing Progress."

That the Obama White House is wielding its official blog to directly and pointedly challenge (in)action in the Senate is interesting enough. But the Shelby hold episode might suggest a "what if?" question of interest to us digital politics geeks here. Namely, what other Internet assets might a White House and its allies have in a political situation like this? Or to put it another way, is anything different about the calculus of an entrenched practice like a Senate hold in the age of Twitter and Facebook and Google Groups and the rest?

Read this for good background on what a Senate hold means, procedurally. But the part of the situation of concern is the institutional math aspect to something like a hold or the blue-slip power over judicial appointees. They're often predicated on a information imbalance. Senators don't often have a firm grasp of who in their midst is freezing up what; the public, it goes without saying, goes about its day not really knowing what's going down in the Senate. The way the United States Senate works today, one senator, as we're seeing in the Shelby case, holds enormous power against his or her 99 colleagues. One lone Senator can gum up the Senate miserably. The hold is a cudgel made more powerful by the fact that there's a swirl of mystery around who's using it. With things like holds, there's an element of seeing what you can get away with. The hold is little known, opposition is scattered, and the whole thing happens largely in the dark.

But the thing is that disseminating information, forming consensus, and shining a spotlight on what had been hidden? Those are things that the Internet, when handled skillfully, is sometimes pretty good at. (Think the Obama campaign, anti-Lou Dobbs drives, "Macaca"...) To make it more concrete, you can start to imagine how the White House or other Democrats could go beyond blogging about their ire to using something like Twitter to change the math of a Senate hold. It could, for example, be used to make holds more costly for the holder by drawing attention to what had before been shrouded in secrecy; a catchy hashtag set loose by the White House into the Twitterverse might be all that it would take.

We talk a lot about what Organizing for America might do with Obama in the White House. But there's a chance that the grassroots model that works best in the governing phase might have as much to do with Obama et al figuring out how to use their old friend the Internet to empower citizens to change that sort of institutional math.