By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008
Freshman Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R) is a stickler for rules, a plus of sorts when you are one of six lawmakers serving on that quaintest of House entities, the 18th-century-vintage Franking Commission, which decides whether lawmakers' constituent communications pass ethical muster.
He is also a Californian, a believer in the latest communications technology, especially video links to his own House performances. So when he discovered that embedding YouTube videos on his official Web site violated his commission's prohibition on links to commercial sites, he brought the issue to the commission's chairman, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.).
Capuano's response may have been a tad cavalier -- "just go ahead and do it; everyone else does" -- but it did set the antiquated Franking Commission on a technological journey. The result is that within a month, that most modern of institutions, YouTube, plans to create a government ghetto, free of advertising, where lawmakers can post the videos of their choice.
Nobody has ever accused Congress of being particularly hip. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) became something of a Luddite legend when he called the Internet "a series of tubes."
"I make no bones about it. I don't know anything about this stuff," Capuano said with a shrug.
But they're cottoning on. More than 100 House members have multimedia pages and YouTube links on their Web sites -- all in violation of House rules that date to when lawmakers communicated with voters through snail mail and newsletters.
The reason is simple enough: The Franking Commission frowns on official links to campaign-related Web sites, political parties, advocacy groups and "any site the primary purpose of which is the conduct of commerce."
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) has marveled aloud at the democratic possibilities presented by YouTube. But type his name in the YouTube search, click on his visit to Haditha, Iraq, and up pop related videos on Pence's floor speeches, a Rush Limbaugh interview -- and "Avril Lavigne-Hot."
House and Senate members can use in-house video technology, but it's slow and cumbersome, and the more lawmakers use the Capitol's computer servers, the worse it gets. Just try using McCarthy's squeaky-clean video gallery page. (Members of the Senate don't seem to have a problem with creaky video service, however, because there are fewer of them.)
At a Franking Commission meeting earlier this year, McCarthy suggested directly embedding YouTube videos on lawmakers' Web sites. Constituents would not be thrown to a commercial site, and would not wait endlessly watching their hourglass cursors. But even that pesky YouTube label on the lower right-hand corner was an advertisement of sorts.
So at a meeting this week, the commission hit on a compromise that could push House Web sites into the modern age of mass communications. Aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put out a request for an easy-to-use video Web site that could establish a commercial-free zone devoid of Avril Lavigne footage or "Planet Unicorn" ring tones, another inexplicable byproduct of a search for Pence-related video.
Within a month, the one and only responder, YouTube, should have its commercial-free zone up and running, Capuano said. Republicans on the commission still fret that with only one such site, the House could be seen as picking winners and losers on the Web. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), another commission member, said the panel's Republicans want to keep the new rules fluid enough to use any future Web site that comes forward with a better plan.
"Technology moves fast. Congress moves slow," he said.
But, hey, any video's got to be better than the still-life photo gallery on Capuano's admittedly old-school Web page.
"To me, the Web is a necessary evil," he admitted, "like cellphones."