House leaders are hoping to organize Democrats' approach to Twitter, YouTube and other new media tools through a New Media Caucus that will serve as a one-stop resource for information and advice.
Launched last week, the caucus is the latest reaction from a Congress that is increasingly experimenting with online social media. More than 300 Members use Facebook, for example, while at least 70 Members use Twitter. House Republicans launched their own New Media Caucus about one year ago, with a similar focus on educating Members on the latest technology.
But Members from both parties are still grappling with how to use websites such as Facebook and Twitter to most efficiently reach out to constituents. New technologies also come with new worries over outdated House franking rules; the use of third-party websites is essentially a big gray area.
In a few instances, House and Senate officials have worked with social media groups like Facebook to create rule-abiding tools and services for Members. But such agreements take months.
In the House, the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards — which polices franked mail and Members' Internet usage — is slowly working on updating the chamber's rules.
The result is an atmosphere of trial and error in Member offices. One of the purposes of the Democratic New Media Caucus — founded by Reps. Mike Honda (Calif.) and Chellie Pingree (Maine) — is to help Members navigate the new media terrain by becoming a platform for best practices and a liaison to industry stakeholders, according to a spokesman in Honda's office.
"Fostering partnerships with these companies will mean our members have a greater say, are having a more substantive and important dialogue online with their constituents and will open doors to innovation and creativity as new media evolves and changes," Honda wrote in a recent posting to his blog.
So far, the caucus has 10 members and has held meetings with Twitter, Facebook and Google officials. Caucus staffers also plan to give individual consultations with Member offices, helping them determine where to best use their resources. For example, flashy videos on a Member's website may be futile if the majority of the lawmaker's constituents reside in rural areas that rely on dial-up Internet access. Some advice might be universal: One tip is to take a picture of a visiting school group, post it on Facebook and draw students to a Member's profile by inviting them to tag themselves.
But only time will tell whether Members will actually use the caucus as a resource. A spokesman from Honda's office emphasized the group's ties to the Democratic Caucus, which he said would ensure a constant conversation on new media efforts.
"The amazing thing about the working group is it's under the umbrella of the Democratic Caucus," a spokesman said, adding that Members will discuss some of the topics during caucus meetings. "The great thing is that we're going to go out of our way to make this a consistent thing."
Still, the caucus has launched with only seven months left in a Congressional session that has seen an explosion of new media usage. But Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), characterized the New Media Caucus as simply the formalization of "long-standing efforts by the House Democratic leadership to encourage Members to utilize new media to communicate with their constituents."
"The Speaker believes that new media provides unique opportunities for real-time communication," he said, "and this caucus will provide Members and staff with ongoing guidance, training and best practices."