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Despite Weiner scandal, use of Twitter is popular on Capitol Hill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Will the tweeting travails of U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner put a damper on the rapidly expanding Tweetocracy on Capitol Hill? The New York Democrat's admission Monday that he had sent lewd photos to women via a personal Twitter account shone a sudden spotlight on the nearly three-quarters of members of Congress who use Twitter as part of their jobs.

But several lawmakers said Tuesday that the Weiner case is an anomaly -- illuminating a personal problem rather than a flaw in the social medium -- that should not interfere with the expanding use of Twitter and Facebook, which have become increasingly important tools to expand their outreach to constituents, the media and fellow legislators.

"The problem with Congressman Weiner was not Twitter," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who is one of the Senate's most prolific tweeters. "Anybody who thinks that's the problem misunderstands what happened. This is a personal problem with this Congressman."

McCaskill, who has more than 55,000 "followers" on Twitter and has sent nearly 1,900 tweets, told the Beacon Tuesday that she regards Twitter and other social media as important tools to communicate with Missourians and to get a sense of their feelings about important issues in the Senate.

"I think it's really helpful," McCaskill said. "I get a lot of Tweets that are very critical of me. ... I think that gives me perspective. I get a lot of Tweets from Missourians with questions about things. And a lot of people just state their opinions. ... All of that helps inform me about what people are thinking and what they're worried about."

The Missouri senator added: "It's just another tool to communicate, and I like it because I can do it directly without review or editing."

McCaskill is unusual in that she actually writes her tweets and doesn't allow staffers into the mix. "I'm one of the few [senators] who have consistently done it without the help of staff. I take full responsibility and control of my Twitter account," she said.

While Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., tends to use staffers in helping with his Twitter account, he said Tuesday that he, too, regards social media as an important way of communicating with constituents -- and he hopes the Weiner case won't slow lawmakers who make legitimate use of their accounts.

"I think it's important to use the social media," Blunt told reporters in a phone call. "We're trying to use that in a way that really makes people comfortable in communicating with our office in whatever way they think is best to do it."

Blunt likes to tell the story about a young Texas congressman, Sam Rayburn -- who would later become speaker of the House -- who told his staff to respond to every constituent message in the same form it was sent: by pencil, pen or typewriter. "The message was that he wanted to communicate with people in the way that made them feel most comfortable," Blunt said. "I think the social media falls into that" category. "It's on my business card -- how you contact us by both Facebook and Twitter."

While Blunt's staff does much of the tweeting, he said, "I try to monitor those conversations closely enough with the staff" to make sure they are reflecting his views in their response. "I walk through there a couple of times a day and ask, 'What are people talking about?'"

"I think it's important that that media be available to people," he said. Despite the Weiner case, Blunt said he "would hope that people don't shy away from a medium that others are very comfortable using to contact their elected representatives."

Most Congressional Tweeting is Dull

The daily drumroll of congressional Tweets -- as live-streamed around the clock (Motto: "We the Tweeple") -- can be an eye-glazing exercise in boredom, with an occasional spark from a witty lawmaker.

According to TweetCongress, 229 Republicans, 156 Democrats and two independents now use Twitter. The vast majority of congressional Tweets tend to be self-serving PR messages, boasting about a vote on issue A, a meeting with high-ranking official B, or a comment about a home-state visit to C. Some even link to press releases.

On Friday, TweetCongress reported that members of Congress of both parties have been tweeting less in the days after the Weiner scandal broke. Democrats' tweets are down by 29 percent and Republicans' tweets are down by 27 percent, according to a survey by the website.

The daily word analysis by the website showed that Tuesday's most common words in U.S. Senate tweets were: Dems, jobs, American. Over in the Republican-controlled House, the most used Tweet words of the day were: jobs, tax and debt.

While McCaskill has tens of thousands of Twitter followers, her numbers pale in comparison to the acknowledged Twitter champion in the Senate: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who as of Tuesday had 1,722,785 followers.

In the Missouri and Illinois delegations, McCaskill -- @clairecmc -- has been by far the most active tweeter. In fact, she is often cited as among Washington's most influential tweeters, often mixing a bit of personal detail or Mizzou sports enthusiasm with work-related comments.

A typical McCaskill Tweet, from June 3: "Great visits yestrdy to Whiteman AFB, Warrensburg, & Columbia. Today in KC doing veterans event. Tonight Cards v Cubs W/ Joe and my daughters."

Blunt -- @RoyBlunt -- is a relative newcomer to the tweeting world but already has amassed more than 10,000 followers since he joined the Senate in January. Blunt's tweets tend to be a bit less personal than those of McCaskill. On June 3, Blunt sent this Tweet: "Disappointing unemployment #s today = 28 consecutive months w/ natl unemployment above 8%. Where are the jobs?"

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. -- @SenatorDurbin -- was a relative late-comer to tweeting and really just got started this year. He had 2,623 followers and 334 Tweets as of Tuesday.

In line with his position as the Senate's second-ranking Democrat, Durbin's Tweets tend to drive home his party's message for the day. For example: "#Republican #budget ends #Medicare as we know it -- vouchers won't keep up with inflation and #seniors won't be able to afford care."

When people sign up to Durbin's site, a message asks them to endorse a "social media user agreement" with carefully worded disclaimers saying that Durbin and his office "reserve the right, but undertake no duty, to review, edit, move or delete any material submitted as a comment to the information provided for display or placed on the social media web sites in its sole discretion, without notice. Comments submitted to these sites will be reviewed and inappropriate comments may be deleted at the sole discretion of Sen. Durbin's office." The agreement asks users to "refrain from posting questions that contain threats, obscenity, material that would violate the law if published here, abusive, defamatory or sexually explicit material."

The junior senator from Illinois, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk -- @SenatorKirk -- has been an active tweeter since he moved from the House to the Senate last November. Kirk, who has 3,702 followers, will sometimes tweet several times a day. A spokesman said the senator usually comes up with the ideas for the Tweets, which staffers then post. While Kirk often focuses on issues, he had mixed in some interesting Tweets about pirates off the Somali coast or nuclear-waste pools in the Chicago area.

While many lawmakers don't respond directly to Tweets from constituents, McCaskill said she makes a point of trying to do so. "I generally don't reply publicly, but it's very common for me to direct-message people from Missouri. I do that frequently," she said. "I try very hard to maintain a two-way communication with Missourians, especially when they have specific concerns about issues or questions they have about my stands on things."

While she hasn't caught much flak from her Tweets so far, McCaskill recalled one case when the wrong spelling caused her a bit of embarrassment. "I misspelled 'public' one time, which was embarrassing. I left the 'l' out of 'public,' when I was referring to public options," she said with a laugh.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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