Updated: Sept. 28, 11:24 p.m.
In theory, Members of Congress who post videos to their official websites are bound by the same rules that govern taxpayer-funded mail pieces: no overtly political or partisan messages, no mention of elections, no solicitation of support for legislation or a candidate.
But Rep. Darrell Issa appears to have figured out the print rules do not really apply to video.
Staff for Issa, the top Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has posted dozens of videos to the committee's website and YouTube page that mock the Obama administration, ask viewers to oppose legislation and mention electoral politics — all paid for with taxpayer money.
The California Republican's office argues that none of the videos violate any House rule or guideline, and that Democrats have posted videos that are just as political.
The real problem, Issa's spokesman said, is that the House Administration Committee has failed to publish clear rules for what Members can and cannot say in a video.
There are few active video feeds among the Republican and Democratic websites of major House committees, and videos posted on those sites are generally clips of hearings, floor statements or Member appearances on TV news programs.
But Issa's staff, operating under the nom-de-film Oversight Productions, has produced videos resembling campaign issue ads and posted them to the Oversight Committee website or the Oversight Republicans' channel on YouTube.
One of Issa's videos attacks President Barack Obama for requiring that construction projects using federal stimulus money post signs announcing that fact. The video argues this is illegal propaganda because "since 1952, it's been illegal to use public money to push a partisan program or person." The video also hints at electoral politics, saying the signs are meant "to put President Obama back in the White House."
Another video attacks the administration for a "Schizo Strategy" on Afghanistan, with a "Dragnet"-type narrator saying Obama "keeps talking moderate but bows to the left" over a photo of Obama bowing to Japanese Emperor Akihito. The narrator goes on to say Obama has done the same thing on stimulus and heath care and concludes "that's more left turns than a NASCAR race."
In March, as the House was gearing up for final passage of the bill to overhaul the health care system, Issa's staff posted on the committee website a video of protesters rallying against the measure and chanting "kill the bill."
The video cuts to a text frame saying "Do you hear us Speaker Pelosi?" then to another reading "Tell Pelosi to Kill the Bill." Another video was a skit of someone dressed as America suffering a "health care hangover" — complete with vomiting sound effects — after consuming a toxic drink labeled ObamaCare.
In 2008, the House Administration Committee adopted a new policy on web videos. The policy allows Members to post videos on YouTube and other networking sites, but the videos must be in compliance with "Federal law and House rules and regulations applicable to official communications and germane to the conduct of the Member's official and representational duties."
The House Administration panel publishes rules for committee management in the Committee Handbook, including guidelines for websites. The handbook states that "the content of a committee web site may not ... include personal, political or campaign information [or] include grassroots lobbying or solicit support for a member's position."
None of the Oversight panel videos violate House rules, said Issa spokesman Frederick Hill, who pointed to videos posted by Democratic Members that he said are as political as Issa's.
"Despite the fact the House Administration has failed to write rules specific for video content, we have worked diligently to keep in compliance with the spirit of the rules laid out for other materials where specific rules and guidance exists," Hill said.
Hill noted that in instances where someone has complained about an Oversight video, the committee has reviewed the clips and, in some cases, removed them from the site.
"Beyond rules, we have also been receptive to other concerns brought to our attention about videos," he said.
Hill argued that a YouTube video posted by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is as political as any of Issa's videos. The Maryland Democrat's video uses graphics to make the case the Obama administration inherited an economy devastated by the policies of Congressional Republicans and President George W. Bush.
Hoyer spokeswoman Katie Grant said, "We work hard to stay within the rules while getting out the Democratic message." The video "is a substantive review of legislation we have passed this Congress, which we are allowed to communicate to the public through official resources," she said.
The "Kill the Bill" video Issa's staff posted "simply documents the efforts of concerned citizens visiting Washington and expressing their opinion. The video showcases an event that is policy oriented and not associated with a campaign. It does not include any contact information for Speaker Pelosi nor does it solicit viewer contact information," Hill said.
Hill argued that the real issue is not the content of Issa's videos, but the lack of clear content standards for videos.
"If you're looking for a root cause of confusion about video content rules, you need to look at House Administration Committee Chairman Robert Brady," he said. "His lethargic approach to his job has resulted in a total failure to write specific rules about video content. This, in turn, places an often frustrating burden on offices who must make individual consultations and judgments about rules that weren't written for video content."
Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said Issa's videos "take these video campaign messages to entirely new levels — literally to the level of sham issue advocacy designed to promote or attack candidates and to lobby on behalf of legislation pending before Congress."
But Holman also blamed the House Administration Committee and the franking commission for lax enforcement. "The franking commission has turned its back on this type of technology and let it go essentially unrestricted," he said.
The franking commission will review a video only if it is embedded in an e-mail sent out to more than 500 recipients. Even then, the commission will only look at the front page of the link, not the entire video, House Administration Committee spokesman Kyle Anderson said.
A video would be reviewed by the commission only if someone makes a complaint, at which point the commission would determine whether there is a rules violation and "suggest corrective measures to the office," he said.
Allegations of intentional wrongdoing could be referred to the ethics committee.
Anderson dismissed the notion that there are not rules for videos, pointing out that the guidelines are printed in the Committee Handbook.