Video Postings Create a Ruckus

Posted July 8, 2008 at 6:43pm

House Republicans are loudly objecting to proposed limits on where Members can post their official videos online, claiming that planned rules are insufficient and would curb free speech.

A recent Democratic proposal would require that outside Web sites that host Members’ content — such as YouTube — would first have to be approved by the House Administration Committee. Supporters say it’s the only way to definitively separate official content from advertisements and partisan leanings.

But on Tuesday, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the proposal “an attack on free speech” because it limits where constituents can find Members’ multimedia. He plans to soon send a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on the issue.

“If the proposed rule is adopted, the free flow of information over the Internet between Americans and their representatives will be significantly curtailed,” he said, adding that Members would be limited to putting their content on Web sites approved “by a panel of federal officials that is neither neutral nor independent.”

But current House rules restrict Members much more — all in an effort to keep advertisements away from Members’ official duties. Technically, Members’ official content must be posted on the House.gov domain — a rule that many Members violate by placing videos of speeches and floor debates on YouTube.

Democrats and Republicans agree that current restrictions are unrealistic, and it’s rare for a Member to be reprimanded for violating them. House servers can’t keep up with the demand for online multimedia, and Members are increasingly turning to free and easy-to-use Web sites such as YouTube.

But how the rules should be updated to meet this demand has been a subject of debate. The franking commission, which oversees the rules on Members’ official correspondence, has mulled over the issue for months.

Two proposals took up much of their time: Either approve each external Web site separately or tweak the franking guidelines for the Internet age. The commission recently recommended the former.

The differences between the two choices may seem slight, but they could produce two very different results.

With approved Web sites, Members would be limited to a list of third-party Web sites — most of which would have to develop House-specific sites free from advertisements. But if Members just have to follow tweaked guidelines, they would immediately have a wider range of Web sites to use.

On June 24, Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), chairman of the franking commission, sent a letter to House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), recommending the option of approved Web sites. The committee, he wrote, could revise regulations to allow House “channels” on outside Web sites.

Those channels would face the approval of the House Administration Committee, which would ensure that it was scrubbed clean of advertisements and political commentary. Several government agencies already have their own channels on YouTube; the House would probably follow this path.

Capuano called Republicans’ objections to the plan “ridiculous.”

“We’re not interested in content. We’re interested in commercialism in the House, or the lack thereof,” he said. “We didn’t want some John Q Public playing around on my Web site and seeing an advertisement for McCain for President. That doesn’t seem appropriate.”

But the Republicans on the franking commission want Members to have the freedom to use any outside Web site they choose, as long as the site follows the spirit of the current rules, which try to preserve a nonpartisan nature.

They propose one change to the House policy: a paragraph allowing Members to use any outside Web site as long as a Member’s content “complies with House rules and Franking content regulations.”

Franking commission members Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.) sent a letter to Brady a day after Capuano’s letter, calling it “a mistake to implement narrow regulations that apply only to current technologies because they will most certainly be outdated almost as soon as they are enacted.”

On Tuesday, a Boehner spokesman argued that forcing Members to only use approved sites would “deprive citizens and legislators of the ability to exchange information over these sites.”

“The beauty of YouTube and other similar Web sites is that they’re mercifully free of excessive government control,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said.

But Democrats argued that it was more a matter of ensuring that official duties were separate from inappropriate endorsements.

“If John Boehner and other Republican leaders want to endorse Viagra, good luck to them,” Capuano said. “If they want commercials to pop up on their Web sites, they need to say so.”

Still, Capuano said he was open to later changing the guidelines so Members could have the freedom of choosing any Web site and ensuring it followed the rules. But “we’re not there yet,” he said.

Brady has not indicated which proposal he favors, but the rules can’t change without the House Administration Committee’s stamp of approval. Pelosi is similarly staying silent, though one leadership aide called the controversy a way for Republicans to “scare and distract” from other issues.

The Senate is perhaps closer to making a change to its rules. Senate Rules and Administration spokesman Howard Gantman said the committee expects to vote on a proposal within the next couple of weeks.

The current plan mirrors that of House Democrats. The Rules Committee would first ensure that third-party services followed the rules before allowing Senators to use them, Gantman said.

“Unless you have a process, you have no idea whether Members are operating a Web site or not,” he said, later adding: “The thought was that there needed to be some clear guidance.” Otherwise, he said, official speeches and policy discussions may show up alongside something wildly unofficial — such as pornographic advertisements or campaign material.

Rules would include restrictions on promotional material and requirements that Senators monitor posted comments. But both House and Senate Democratic staff emphasized that committees would not review any of the Members’ content.

And as technology changes, Gantman said, the rules will just have to be tweaked.

“This is a whole new world,” he said. “When the Senate last revised the regulations and policies for use of the Internet, YouTube was in its infancy.”