Lawmakers tweet up a storm in D.C.
Congress has spent the last year learning to tweet. More than a third of its members are doing it now. And if you thought the minute-to-minute musings of your best friends were boring (“I need coffee . . . I just saw a snowflake”), just wait.
FOR THE RECORD:
Congress and Twitter: An article in Tuesday’s Section A about the growing use of Twitter by members of Congress, in a passage about politicians’ past use of diaries before the rise of social media, referred to former Sen. Bob Graham of Florida as a Republican. He is a Democrat. —
Now we know that at 1:41 p.m. on Dec. 15, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) set out to deliver his holiday fruitcakes. Or that on Jan. 21 at 6:13 a.m., Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) was reading “Three Cups of Tea” and thought it was “great so far.” Or that at 7 p.m. on Jan. 30, Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) was excited to learn his state’s own Stefanie Wittler had taken third place in the Miss America contest: “Strong woman. Great family!”
It came to our attention last year that lawmakers better known for bellowing and bloviating were starting to tweet. We caught them doing it in the middle of one of President Obama’s first big televised speeches.
But if our nation held out hope that its notoriously verbose legislators would lose interest in anything that cuts them off at 140 characters, that hope appears dead. Congressional tweeting is on the rise. The Congressional Research Service -- Congress’ think tank -- noticed the trend and decided to spend 61 days last summer studying how technology’s latest craze was going over in a place that never got rid of its spittoons.
It turns out that more than 200 of 535 members have jumped on the Twitter train. Representatives do it more than senators; Republicans more than Democrats. Wednesday is their favorite day to tweet, and their favorite subject to tweet about is a trip to the district. The California delegation has the most tweeters -- 15 of 55 members.
It didn’t take a government study to figure out some of them do it better than others. The social media are amassing enormous political power. Conservative star Sarah Palin lobbed her “death panels” grenade on Facebook and kept it alive on Twitter. (“R death panels back in?”)
But in Congress, not all who Twitter appreciate this power. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- whose tweets bring to mind Mom’s list of after-school do’s and don’ts: “We Must Pass Health Care Reform”; “Watch the State of the Union” -- doesn’t.
Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina -- “It’s going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries ‘uncle’ ” -- does. The Republican’s tweet was widely cited by talking heads on both sides of the climate change debate.
Then there is Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who tweets the way God intended, up close and personal, painting grammatically truncated portraits of herself traversing the globe as lawmaker and homemaker: “Traveling tonight to visit troops and do contract oversight. Details later”; “Just left grocery store. Lots of opinions, everyone very nice”; “Making roast beef for the family for tomorrow. I’m trying to diet . . . sigh.”
McCaskill’s personable and frequent tweets have earned her more than 36,000 followers -- the second-highest number in Congress, according to Tweetcongress .org.
But that’s nothing compared with the congressional Twitter king, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Yes, the same 73-year-old McCain who admitted as a presidential candidate that he didn’t use a computer. He has racked up 1.7 million followers -- nearly half of what Oprah has -- even though his tweets are kind of boring and sound suspiciously staff-written. “Good morning! If you are up early in Phoenix turn on ABC 15 at 6:40 for my interview.”
Older people tend not to be big tweeters, except in Washington.
Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, 76, has taken his place among the top five most popular congressional tweeters. His read like a teenager dutifully checking in with his parents and unpredictably popping off: “Ice cream stop at Culver Muscatine on way nxt town Meet.”; “When you are a ‘hammer’ u think evrything is NAIL I’m no NAIL.”
That last one, directed at Obama after he told Congress to deliver on healthcare while he tooled around Paris last summer, won acclaim for aggressive tweeting.
Past efforts by politicians to record their every thought have not always gone well. There were the unfortunate diaries of former Oregon Republican Sen. Bob Packwood. (“I could hardly concentrate on her breasts.”) And the meticulous diaries of ex-Florida Republican Sen. Bob Graham. (“Apply scalp medication . . . dress in khaki pants.”)
Officialdom has since ventured nonetheless into Facebook, YouTube and MySpace. But Twitter’s casual spontaneity offers a new, more accessible way for even the most managed lawmaker to stick his or her foot in his or her mouth, in writing, no less. No one loves this trend more than political reporters.
“Oh God, what happens if the staff for these members finally wakes up, realizes what they are doing and makes them stop?” said Salon.com Washington correspondent Mike Madden, who regularly fishes the Twitter streams for golden bits of candor. “A lot of them have aides follow them around so they won’t say something stupid in the hallway.”
There is no question that American invention has revolutionized the Congress-constituent relationship. Consider television, which gave us live pictures of senators passionately speechifying to an empty chamber.
And we can all thank the robocall for bringing recorded campaign messages directly into our homes, usually around dinner time.
Congressional researchers who conducted the survey hypothesize that Twitter might one day enable real-time exchanges with voters even as lawmakers head to the floor to vote, thereby enhancing the democracy.
After perusing the Twitter streams of Congress, this seems like a stretch. Unlike the back-and-forth of the real world version, Twittering pols tend to do all the talking -- but then, what did we expect?
Not to mention that Twitter, like a lot of unverifiable electronic information, is ripe for fraud. Tennessee’s Wamp found this out when his followers were directed to a site selling colon cleansing pills, with his fake tweet of approval: “hi. this works. i feel better and look great.”
Still, something good could come of this after all. Tweeting requires nothing if not brevity, a skill lawmakers seem to lose whenever there is a microphone in the vicinity.
We now have proof it’s possible to condense a message and be done with it. Consider Grassley, who recently informed us he was caught in Washington’s blizzard, his flight got diverted, and he had to bunk in his office to make an early interview, all in a single glorious tweet:
“Bad weather. Took 12hrs to fly bk DC. DCA shut down. Had fly BWI. Slept in office so b on Hill for CNBC intrvu 7am in 20min.”
If only they could do that on the chamber floor.