Friday afternoon I was making a rare pass through the House side of the Capitol when I came upon the madhouse that was the House gallery. Tourists crammed the hallways waiting to get in. Staffers were racing up the steps to get into the gallery only to be forced in line by the Capitol Police. The House floor itself, dark with the TV lights turned off, was the scene of raucous cheering, clapping, and yelling. Non-members of Congress filled the House floor. Congress obviously wasn’t in session—or was it?
Republicans often get a bad rap when it comes to technology. They have far fewer online success stories and trail behind the Democrats when it comes to online organizing and online fundraising. Yet what I stumbled upon Friday was a small group of wired GOP congressmen who decided to write a new chapter.
The issue Friday was the Republican energy plan, “Drill Here, Drill Now.” President Bush and congressional Republicans argue that by opening up more domestic oil drilling, we can lower gas prices at the pump and send less of our money to the world’s petro-dictatorships.
Democrats, on the other hand, point out that additional domestic drilling will take years to have an effect and that more oil will only feed Americans’ destructive addiction to oil, rather than encouraging investment in alternative fuels and new technologies.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi adjourned the House on Friday for its August recess, Republicans stayed behind to press the energy issue. Even after the C-SPAN cameras went dark and the microphones were turned off, GOP House members rallied on the floor demanding progress on offshore drilling. The semi-spontaneous protests grew in force over the course of the afternoon as members who thought they were done for the summer streamed back to the Capitol.
Texas Republican Kevin Brady was on a plane ready to head home when word reached him of the protest. He headed back to the House. By late afternoon, scores of GOP congressmen had taken to the floor to call for action.
What was particularly interesting about the event was the way word spread. C-SPAN couldn’t broadcast because the House wasn’t technically in session; it was up to the Republicans to spread their own word and their own images of the event.
E-mail helped, as did telephone calls, but the GOP owes much credit to two congressmen and the micro-blogging site Twitter, which allows users to post 140-character text messages to their personal profile. Reps. Pete Hoekstra and John Culberson took the lead in spreading news of the “Drill Here, Drill Now” protest. They served as the digital Paul Reveres and Charles Dawes for a new era of politics. Imagine if rallying the Massachusetts countryside in 1775 had been as easy as sending a text message.
Numerous posts over the course of Friday afternoon helped draw gawkers, supporters, and staff. Bloggers spread the word online long before the news media picked up the story. Using mobile devices, congressmen even broadcast live video from next to the House floor. “Here is a powerful use of social media—when they turn off the mike we can still communicate,” Culberson wrote Friday as the episode began.
Hoekstra posted the phone number for the speaker’s office and encouraged his followers to call and urge her to act on drilling. Those who did posted YouTube videos of their phone calls, creating an instant sense of action and energy. The fact that Speaker Pelosi was headed off on a book tour only fueled the Republican indignation.
The episode underscored one of the new truths of politics: Every moment is live. For better and for worse our leaders’ every moment can be catalogued, recorded, and broadcast live. The media’s role in all of this is changing by the day. The rules of Congress, which prohibit C-SPAN from broadcasting in the House when it isn’t in session and which prohibit cameras on the House floor, seem archaic in an era when journalist Dan Gillmor says, “We are the media.”
The video from Friday’s protest came in not from expensive network cameras but from the cell phones of tourists, staff, and congressmen. The reports from the House floor came in more quickly from the members themselves than from the journalists assigned to the Capitol. On Twitter, hundreds of “Tweets” flowed in as people reported from the scene or urged others on. The conversation continued right through the weekend.
“This is an exciting moment for America: this event is the dawn of real time democracy through real time representatives, and no turning back,” Culberson wrote this weekend on Twitter.
Through leaders like Culberson, new media is allowing unprecedented access to the halls of government. Unfortunately, far too many elected officials still ignore these critical and life-changing new ideas. Culberson and Hoekstra are anomalies, especially in their own party.
In the coming years the e-gov movement, thanks to new technologies like Twitter and new groups like the Sunlight Foundation, will fundamentally reshape the way government does business.
As the “Drill Now” protest is scheduled to pick up again this morning, the question is whether Washington is ready for an era of direct democracy. These new communication mediums thrive as two-way conversations, meaning that if Washingtonians like Culberson can speak to us unfiltered, the public can talk right back. To many elected leaders, that’s the scarier half of this equation.
Editor-at-Large Garrett M. Graff, the author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, writes about the intersection of politics and technology. Check out his previous columns "McCain and the Internet: Why it Matters" and "Netroots Nation: When the Outsiders Become Insiders."