Taxpayer Funds to Tweet?

WSJ reports on House members’ use of social media and new media.

Congressional rules bar lawmakers from using their free-mail privilege — known as franking — to send mass mailings through the U.S. Postal Service in the 90 days before an election. . . .  But rules for email, congressional Web sites and social-media tools are far less restrictive, and in some cases nonexistent.

Some rules regarding online communications exist in the House handbook. It says, for instance, that content of electronic outreach should abide by the strict rules governing franked mail. But unlike the franking rules, the handbook regulations are only guidelines, and members’ online communications sometimes stray from them. For example, many lawmakers post self-promoting biographies on their official Web sites, although the franking rules prohibit mailing such materials.

In the case of email, lawmakers are allowed to contact constituents within the 90-day run-up to an election, so long as they are communicating with individuals who have signed up for their email newsletters. That has spurred many lawmakers to hire vendors who use data-mining to ferret out email addresses for thousands of their constituents. Then the lawmakers send out mass emails seeking to sign up their constituents for the newsletters.

Further, lawmakers use information they collect on constituents’ interests to target them with issue-oriented emails — a tactic drawn from recent political campaigns. No House rules specifically address these practices.

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