WASHINGTON – Texas Rep. John Culberson uses his Blackberry to post blurbs about his work onto Twitter, a social networking site on the Internet. The Internet has set him free from unfair media reports and other barriers between him and his constituents, enabling him to better represent them in Congress, he says.
But Culberson's actions have put him in possible violation of House rules that appear to ban blogging or other work-related activities on non-House Web sites.
Current rules "have been interpreted to prohibit (House) members from posting official content outside of the House.gov domain," Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., chairman of the Congressional Commission on Mailing Standards, better known as the franking committee, wrote in a report late last month.
In a series of recommendations sent to House Administration Capitol Security Subcommittee Chairman Robert Brady, Capuano said some rules are necessary so as not to mix House official messages with commercial or political campaign material.
"Members of Congress who use taxpayer money to communicate with constituents should be held to the highest possible standard of independence — and the appearance of independence," he said last week.
"Official content" — like video — that is posted outside the House.gov domain should be clearly marked, should not appear alongside commercial or campaign content and should contain an exit notice for people linking out from the House.gov domain, Capuano recommended.
But those recommendations have riled Republicans like Culberson, who argue they limit his communications. The spat has reached the highest levels of the House, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi backing Capuano by saying his work won't restrict but will rather loosen the rules. In response, House Minority Leader John Boehner has rung alarm bells over possible Democratic-led censorship of the Internet.
By communicating on Twitter, Culberson said he can tell his constituents to watch a live video he's about to broadcast on a site called Qik.com. By blasting an announcement that he's going to hold a town hall meeting, Culberson said anyone with a mobile e-mail device, an Internet connection or a phone can tap into the discussion. Or if a vote on a confusing or quickly-moving bill is coming up he can shoot out marching orders as needed to his supporters.
"It's a great way to instantaneously communicate with a large number of people," Culberson said.
Banning video postings by House members also hands the media an advantage they wouldn't have if he were allowed to use new technology to get out his side of the story, beating biased reporters to the punch, he said.
"How do I distinguish between Twitter and e-mail? There is no distinguishing. How do I distinguish between my interview with you on FOX News, and this live video that I'm broadcasting through Qik? How do you distinguish between my interview on Qik, which is live, with an interview on The New York Times?" asked Culberson, pronouncing the Web site as "quick," in an interview with FOX News last week.
Culberson said he believes lawmakers should face few, if any, restrictions on Internet use. If House members run astray of good taste, their constituents will let them know.
But Capuano counters that the rules — while they don't specifically address capabilities of sites like Qik — appear to ban such activity for good reason, and Culberson learned the lesson last week when the two men got into a one-on-one confrontation.
In a video posted online of his interview with FOX News, Culberson relayed how Capuano got irritated when Culberson apparently tried to get Capuano on camera, but hadn't asked him first. After the video was posted, Capuano ended up receiving a torrent of e-mails and phone calls from Culberson backers.
Admitting he might have jumped the gun by posting the confrontation, Culberson said he apologized to Capuano and pledged not to film him again without his permission.
Still, Culberson defended his decision to go to Qik to post the video, saying he thought a rule was going to be voted on and he felt it was his only recourse to let Capuano know how the public felt.
"I told him today — and he's a good guy, and he understood this — I said, 'Mike, you're going to have about as much luck regulating the Internet as King Knut did when he ordered his men to put this throne on the beach, and he tried to order the tide to stop," Culberson said, summing up the phone call in a video message to his constituents.
FOX News' Chad Pergram and Gregory Simmons contributed to this report.