Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How Congress Communicates on the Internet...

Much has been written in recent years about how internet technologies are changing the ways in which members of Congress engage the public. However, what's been less frequently discussed is how such innovations have spurred Congress to alter the way it operates as an institution.

In a study by Colleen J. Shogun of the Congressional Research Service, and published in April's Political Science & Politics Journal (Vol. 43, No. 2), some statistical light is shed on this topic...

  • In 1997, the last year without widespread email use in Congress, the House and Senate received a total of 30.5 million pieces of postal mail. By 2007, the combined total of emails and postal mail communications received was 491.6 million. That's over a 1500% increase in 10 years.

  • As far as how members of Congress communicate with each other, use of the exclusive "Dear Colleague" system, which enables members to send communications to other members about proposed legislation, committee action, briefings, chamber procedural issues, etc., has gone from 5,000 messages sent in 2003 to over 17,000 in 2009. That's a 240% increase in 6 years.

  • As members have quickly adopted Twitter as a favorite medium, a relatively small study of member tweets found that, in the summer of 2009, out of 1187 tweets, 69.8% originates from House Republicans, while only 14% came from House Democrats, and the remainder from members of the Senate.

    • Not only did more House Republicans use Twitter than their Democratic counterparts, they also tweeted more frequently.

    • Furthermore, out of those same tweets, 46.9% either provided links to other websites or or called attention to media activities of the member, such as being on a television show. 25% described an official action the member had taken on the floor or in committee, and 12.4% described the members position on an issue. Only 1.4% were direct replies to other tweets.

It's difficult to read too much into these numbers - the largest obstacle being that the statistics aren't current enough. Year-old studies may be fine for most policy research, but not for internet usage metrics (as any webmaster will tell you).

Nevertheless, the author lists a few possible ramifications of this dramatic increase in direct member-constituent dialogue: 1) that the trustee model of representation might wither, 2) that the "iron triangle" model of policymaking might need to develop into a four-sided structure to incorporate direct input from the public (meaning, interest groups could see their influence weaken), and 3) that congressional staff responsibilities may have to shift in order to handle the higher volume of constituent communications.

These points can all be debated, however, what seems to be indisputable in study after study is how internet technologies truly have altered some of our oldest and most fundamental institutions. But let's not go completely ga-ga just yet. After all, Congress still has standing bans on laptops, Blackberries, and cellphones on its different chamber floors.


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