Posts by Molly Chapman Norton

Why Congress Doesn't Blog...And a Few Members Who Do

March 2, 2005

Molly Chapman Norton

The political blogosphere now provides commentary on races all the way down the ballot to the local level. Yet, despite the proliferation of blogs on the news side of the media, they are a technology only rarely used by politicians. In fact, most congressional websites look at least five years out of date. Only a few have included any kind of blog, even though blogs would seem like one of the easiest ways for a member of Congress to connect with constituents. Of the handful of congressional "blogs," most lack the capability for readers to post comments at will, making them at best a one-way online diary—though the press-release quality of much of the writing leaves much to be desired.

Why don’t more politicians blog?

Only a few members of Congress have features that they call blogs on their actual congressional websites, among them Senator Jim Talent (R-MO), Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL). But, most of these aren’t true blogs. Inherent in a blog is the ability to post comments and have online discussions. A few members regularly post, but only one— Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO)—has embraced the open, unfiltered nature of blogging with ongoing unadulterated threads. A few other members have blogs – or more specifically remnants of blogs, but they have only been updated once or twice, clearly a project that didn’t catch on.

To be sure, a number of pols have learned to use blogs to their advantage in campaign season, but, back in Washington, members of Congress have not embraced blogs yet as a tool to reach out to constituents. Capitol Hill web pioneer Chris Casey, who put Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy on the web in 1994, offers this insight: "Campaigns are way ahead on congressional offices when it comes to new tools. For the official site members have to keep stricter control. It’s a long-term site, whereas the campaign site is short-term." Casey, who is now director of online campaigns for NGP Software adds, "[Campaigns have an] incentive to try new things – anything to attract supporters, who may eventually become donors or volunteers."

Why have so few members embraced this new medium? For one, because there are so few of their peers on the blogging bandwagon, there is no pressure to join. members and their staffs also worry about the significant amount of time it could take to keep up a blog. Some also note that blogs may not be an effective medium in rural or poor congressional districts where many residents may not own a computer or have internet access. But the real reason most people give—though they didn’t wanted to be quoted by name—is that they do not like the uncontrolled nature of blogging.

Much of the communication from congressional offices is carefully polished, and artfully spun, which would be difficult to blend with the spontaneous nature of blogs. Said one Democratic press operative: "The time dedicated to implementing a blog is significant. It’s unfiltered. Mass communication from the Hill is filtered -- this doesn’t vibe with blog culture, which is more freewheeling and responsive." The aide added, "Also, on a true blog you can comment. I think a lot of members are fearful of it being unfiltered."

George Washington University Professor Michael Cornfield, who is senior research consultant for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, observes that members of Congress are still suspicious of the internet just because it generates so much email to offices and thus requires additional attention. Cornfield says blogs are not a helpful tool for congressmen for several reasons. "Ceding control of your message" when put on the internet is a huge concern for members of Congress, Cornfield says. Speaking rhetorically, he asks, "Why should I take the risk of having my words taken out of context?" He points out the only good thing that could come of congressional blogging is a following, but most incumbents have a base already so they do not need to attract more money or support.

South Dakota State University history professor Jon Lauck, who is also a political blogger, agrees that members of Congress would not be keen on exposing themselves to criticism, especially since comments could be taken out of context. Lauck, who was a consultant to Republican Sen. John Thune last cycle, says, "A lot of the guys are totally obsessed with message control. Maybe their blogs will be used against them." He expects that, eventually, politicians will “get beyond that fear." Lauck theorizes that congressional press operations could benefit more from the real-time quality of blogs, by tipping off sympathetic bloggers to defuse unflattering stories in the conventional media before they hit, possibly minimizing damage.

The time to keep up a blog would be significant for most congressional press operations, most of which are already busy dealing with constituent mail and e-mail. Chris Casey comments, "It’s not a technical hurdle but more of a time management hurdle. Much of the upkeep of the website falls on staffers who are already over-burdened." He also asks, "Also, what is your editorial control, say if someone posts a bad comment or something like that? [Congressional] offices are more sensitive to editing."

Cornfield notes that the notion of congressional blogging is hindered even further by hidden legal constraints; members have to keep their official business and campaign business totally separate, and that includes communication. The time to keep up two blogs would be overwhelming, plus there would be a constant worry over information being duplicated on both sites – at risk of running afoul of the Federal Election Commission.

Spinning on the Web

Many of the staffers interviewed for this article felt there was a future for blogging in Hill offices as members of Congress and their aides become more tech-savvy, but the difficulty in maintaining spin on a true blog was a hindrance. One staffer, who chose to remain anonymous, said most congressional offices could not incorporate a blog because it was simply too difficult to spin. Another Republican press operative said his office sees the blog as more of an outgoing communicator, but not necessarily as a tool to facilitate conversation.

According to one Democratic press operative, "Lots of communications aides don’t use [blogs] because they are unpredictable. You could make it interesting, but then the unpredictability also goes against how the press community works on the Hill – things are very planned. They would just end up being a bunch of press releases." The operative added, "Technology is slow to filter to the Hill. Even when websites were big, Congress was late to get them. But things are getting more high-tech – many members of Congress are using more interactive newsletters." Interactive newsletters may be more complicated than a press release, but still do not allow the open community discussion that a blog would facilitate.

The aide, whose member represents a more rural area, believed there was probably a future for blogs in Congressional offices, but she said, “But I have to tell you, my constituents would say, 'A blog? What's that?'" That too, may be a question that many members themselves are asking. After all, while the number of Americans who read blogs has increased drastically in the last year, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project report, as of the beginning of 2005, 62 percent of internet users in America weren’t familiar with the term "blog."

But the Pew Project also found that internet use was up 37 percent in 2004 from 2000, and blogs are increasingly becoming a mainstream line of communication. Still, for those politicians who are not internet savvy, blogs probably still seem new-fangled and foreign. Cornfield and Lauck both expressed doubt that many members understand the culture of blogging. Though they may have a staff member or two who read and keep tabs on blogs, it seemed most members do not read them.

Though many politicians may have reservations about blogs, they may want to look at what some of their more adventuresome peers are doing.

Congress’s One Full-Fledged Blogger

Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) has kept a real blog for about 14 months. He keeps it on, but constituents can link up through his official House site. Tancredo spokesman Carlos Espinosa says the blog, which the congressman writes himself, was very effective last session and received a critical mass of feedback. Tancredo actively checks the blog – even participating in the ongoing discussions. In fact, the blog, was recently reformatted so it contained few entries from Tancredo for the 109th Congress at press time, but it already has a few threads running with readers and constituents on immigration, Tancredo’s champion issue. Espinosa says the feedback was extremely helpful in some policy-making in the 108th Congress. He says, “The blog helped decide how far we should take certain issues and helped solidify decisions. It got a ton of hits.” Espinosa says they left all commentary posted, regardless of the opinion, as long as foul language wasn’t used.

One of the First

Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) was one of the first to pioneer a congressional "blog." His has been up since 2004, and the Congressman has posted regular entries, particularly when major events have occurred, for example during former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral. Pence’s blog includes postings from both his press operation and himself, but does not feature a feedback button or one-click way for a constituent to respond to an item. That said, it clearly has proven its value as a way of getting his message out, especially to local media. Indiana political reporter, Ed Feigenbaum, publisher of INGroup, which publishes several Indiana-focused newsletters, says he makes regular use of the Pence blog: "I check it everyday and it makes it really easy to see what national media is saying about the congressman" and get TV transcripts. Brian Howey of the Howey Political Report, a briefing on Indiana politics, also sometimes checks Pence’s blog. He says, “It’s not something that I rely on as a political commentator. It’s one element that I use.” But, Howey said he thought that blogs will play a more prominent role in the future for media.

Newcomers to the Game

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) launched his blog January 9, 2005, in the first few days of the 109th Congress. Kirk’s blog does facilitate communication between his office and readers, though responses are not actually posted. The feedback button sends commentary to the legislative correspondents (those responsible in an office for constituent mail). Rep. Kirk says he started a blog because, “My constituents are internet savvy and there are a number of blogs running back home.” Kirk says blogging gives him “a chance to keep up with constituents” and also, “keeps them up on Congress.” He says “the internet is the choice medium for everyone 45 and under” even though he’s encountered internet-use spreading among seniors, too.

Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO) launched a blog on November 30, 2004, to document his journey to the Middle East as a member of the Armed Services Committee. On the introduction to his blog, he wrote, “I am planning a visit to Iraq and Israel and I thought a blog would be a good way for me to share with you my impressions along the way.” Talent continued writing entries throughout his trip, actually writing the whole thing himself. Talent’s blog does feature some reader commentary, but all comments are emailed, read and then posted -- they aren't part of an ongoing thread. But Talent spokesman Rich Chrismer says because of the overwhelming response to the blog – the office received roughly 500 emailed comments – they were unable to post all of the commentary. Though Talent only blogged for the trip, he would like to continue using it in the future, according to Chrismer, perhaps for town hall meetings and to give updates on legislation. Chrismer says, "Communication is critical and blogs are a unique way to communicate with constituents."

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL) is the most recent member to launch a blog, but hers does not have open threads or feedback, and many of the postings are from her press office, not the congresswoman.

Other Ways to Connect
Though blogs haven’t become standard on congressional websites, that doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of communications strategy. North Carolina Democratic Rep. Brad Miller’s press secretary, Joe Bonfilio said, “The place for how we use blogs is to get a pulse of how the left is thinking. "Some members of the Senate too, are tapping into the blogosphere. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) recently posted on the DailyKos site to express her appreciation to members of the blog community for supporting her during her opposition to the recent confirmation of Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. She wrote, “Your support and participation in this critical debate meant so much to me. More than 94,000 Americans from across the country signed my petition and stood together to demand the truth from Condoleezza Rice. It was truly an overwhelming response -- much more than I could have anticipated. You helped to get our message out to millions of Americans -- I couldn't have done it without you.” Hundreds of Kos regulars responded with supportive comments.
Like most new technology, full-fledged participation from congressional members in the blogosphere is a ways off, even though the novelty has long ago subsided. On the future role of congressional blogs, Rep. Kirk believes they “will be the primary means of communication with the people that you serve.” Kirk exclaimed, “Bottom line – blogs rule.”

The few pseudo-blogs that are written by members of Congress are taking the first baby steps towards being a part of the real blogosphere. If Rep. Tancredo’s experience is any model, then it seems blogs – real blogs – have potential, like congressional websites did several years ago. But for now, the polished nature of Hill spin machines will continue to dominate congressional communication operations. It may be that the only roles blogs take for the time being are as the tools of campaigns and a way to disseminate Hill-spun releases. Blogs may rule to some, but for now only if they are controlled.

Molly Chapman Norton is the Managing Editor of House Race Hotline and writes a weekly column in CongressDaily on elections. She served as Research Director for the Almanac of American Politics 2004 and is a graduate of the University of Michigan.

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