High tech tool has members of Congress all a-Twitter

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 8, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- Stop the presses!

Republican Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri recently bought a new pair of jeans.

"When I work on the farm near Springfield," the former House majority whip reported, "I'm a guy in jeans."

But wait. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, wrote that she spent an evening this week doing laundry while she prepped for a hearing.

"Like the work more than the laundry," she typed, and it quickly flashed across the Blackberry and cell phone screens of more than 13,000 people.

OMG!

Why are members of Congress suddenly telling us things that ought to start out, "Dear Diary...?" And like every 20 minutes or so, too?

Isn't there a world economic crisis or something?

Because they can, thanks to Twitter.

The social networking tool -- think of it as texting except to a group -- is becoming more popular on Capitol Hill than a sold-out $1,000-a-plate fundraiser. For Congress, "tweets" are the new black.

On the tram, in the elevator, along the marbled corridors, 100 members of the House and Senate -- or aides under their names -- are twittering. Some did even while President Barack Obama spoke to a joint session of Congress.

And McCaskill got a talking-to from her mom after comedian Stephen Colbert "busted" her one night on his show.

"Ok ok. Mom's upset that I was rude at Pres speech re:tweets," one of Capitol Hill's most prolific twitterers wrote. "For the record I tweeted bfor,at very begining,& after speech."

Brevity -- who knew Congress even knew the word? -- is a must. Only 140 characters allowed.

But enough to make your point.

"I have the honor of escorting him," Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington tapped out on her Blackberry before Obama's speech. "If you're watching, I'm wearing white."

To be fair, the Twittering class messages about the stimulus and the bailouts, too, but they also write about their kids, the NBA and Missouri Tigers as well.

Some of their colleagues are amused by Twitter. "Is that what happens to Chris Matthews' leg when Obama speaks?" cracked Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican.

Another question: Is Congress cutting edge?

"Twitter was a hip, cool thing that young people did," said Robert Thompson, an expert on popular culture at Syracuse University. "When congressmen start using something, it ceases to be hip, young and cool. It's like when your parents get their Facebook account."

(Or Congress. Don't look now, but it's discovered Facebook, too.)

Even formerly low-tech Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- who had never sent an e-mail, for heaven's sake -- now knows how to "tweet."

"YEs!! I am twittering on my blackberry," he recently wrote, "but not without a little help!"

This week McCain has been posting tweets about earmarks in the 2009 spending bill.

"$143,000 for the Historic Jazz Foundation in Kansas City, MO.," he scolded.

Like Blunt's blue jeans and McCaskill's laundry, lawmakers also use Twitter to show they're just regular folks.

"One minute you're talking to the President of the US," wrote Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York, "next minute you're shoveling snow on your driveway."

Cultural maven Thompson calls it "marketing."

Non-Twitterers just roll their eyes.

"I see that stuff and I just think, 'Who do they think is interested?'" said Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

Still, it can unleash their inner blabbermouth.

"Jindal is weird," Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon wrote about Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal after his recent national television speech. "Doesn't even look or sound good."

Tweeting about Obama's speech, Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas channeled Renee Zellweger in "Jerry Maguire."

"He had me at cutting the deficit," she wrote, but then, "lost me with all the increased spending."

Twitter can get you into trouble, too.

On a congressional trip to Iraq last month, Republican Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan regularly twittered the whereabouts of the delegation, usually a no-no. Hoekstra, by the way, is ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

Sometimes twittering lawmakers just have nothing to say. Yet the tweets keep coming.

"Aloha Everyone!" tweeted Democratic Rep. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii. "It's me, Neil, reporting in."

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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