Twitter keeps Missouri legislators linked in with constituents

Monday, April 13, 2009 | 4:55 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Wondering what your state lawmaker is doing right now? Head to Twitter, where dozens of Missouri legislators are using the micro-blogging Web site to broadcast an inside scoop about the workings of government.

The Missouri House leader alerts Twitter users before he brings a bill up for debate. And during any given debate, numerous lawmakers are typing rapidly on their wireless devices, posting short updates about what's going on.

Lawmakers use Twitter to offer opinions on legislation, chastise political opponents and solicit reaction from the public that has occasionally shaped discourse in the Capitol.

But Twitter also carries problems. Some lawmakers contend it contributes to a decline in decorum. It's unclear whether lawmakers' Twitter posts — known as "tweets" — enjoy the same constitutional protection as their debate.

Twitter also has the potential for lawmakers to say things they shouldn't, such as when a U.S. congressman twittered his exact location on a trip to Iraq.

Twitter allows users to post 140-character updates that can be viewed by anyone with Internet access. The tweets can be sent or received on either a computer or cell phone.

For instance, those who follow Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, would know that he made a Seinfeld reference during a marathon debate on an economic development bill last week.

"Everyone is offering tax credits for this and that," he wrote. "So I offered an amend for a tax credit for Vandelay Industries and Krameric. Why not?"

Before this session, mentioning Twitter at the Capitol would have garnered little more than a confused look.

Now, more than two dozen Missouri House members and four senators use the site, in addition to more than 100 federal lawmakers such as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has built a cult following of about 20,000 Twitter users.

For several weeks, state Sen. Jolie Justus was the only Missouri legislator who actively twittered. Besides updates from the Senate floor, she also responds to questions and invites constituents to meet for coffee.

Justus, D-Kansas City, said she also incorporates comments she receives over Twitter into committee hearings and floor debate.

"I just started asking some of the questions that my Twitter followers ... were asking," she said. "There are certain points of view that I wouldn't necessarily think of."

Homero Gil de Zuniga, a University of Texas-Austin journalism professor who studies how the Internet affects civic engagement, said that aspect of Twitter is potentially the most beneficial.

"It is good when people discuss these issues and jump into the conversation," Gil de Zuniga said. "Maybe they will care more about the political process and they will engage more."

Most tweets from lawmakers are relatively mundane, such as when House Majority Floor Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, tells more than 100 followers which bills he expects to bring up for debate.

But in mid-March, Tilley also posted that he was eating dinner with a lobbyist and discussing legislation that would affect Holcim Cement, which has a plant in Ste. Genevieve. Last week, Tilley spoke on the House floor in favor of a utility bill that Holcim supports.

Missouri lawmakers also are using tweets to skewer political opponents. Rep. John Burnett, D-Kansas City, wrote recently that a Republican colleague has "no shame at all" for his arguments on a bill that would remove future minimum wage increases for tipped workers.

Twitter hasn't won over all legislators.

Rep. Chris Kelly, a Columbia Democrat starting his second House stint after serving from 1983-1995, said he has no plans to use Twitter. Cell phone use on the House floor is a "serious detriment" because it distracts lawmakers and reduces the amount of time they spend talking with each other, Kelly said.

With less interaction between members, "you don't appreciate their point of view as much," Kelly said. "You only see them as partisan opponents."

Twittering from the House or Senate floor could also pose a legal quandary. Debates on the floor are constitutionally protected from libel claims to encourage free discussion on sensitive topics.

Although she couldn't recall any court decisions on the issue, communications law professor Sandy Davidson said that privilege might not apply to Twitter, because people are expected to more thoughtfully consider a written message before hitting "send."

"I would question whether that same policy would apply if somebody is simply twittering without also engaging in debate," said Davidson, who teaches at MU.

Of course, the expectation to thoughtfully consider a message doesn't mean it will happen.

U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., got in hot water with his tweet that included precise details of his location on a visit to Iraq in February.

"Moved into green zone by helicopter, Iraqi flag now over palace. Headed to new U.S. embassy. Appears calmer, less chaotic than previous here," he wrote in a Feb. 5 update.

The congressman's tweets triggered a review by the Defense Department.

Justus said she predicts Missouri lawmakers also will see a Twitter controversy at some point.

"I'm firmly convinced there will be a 'Twitter-gate,'" she said.


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