WASHINGTON — Walk into Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office for a meeting and you’re likely to find yourself posted on YouTube.
The Miami Republican — and a burgeoning number of her peers — is embracing social networking, reaching out to voters and constituents via a variety of new school platforms that are a far cry from the two-century-old perk that permits members of Congress to send free mail.
Congress, it must be said, is a Twitter.
“My children would rather text me than talk to me, this is a way of communicating and reaching an audience that otherwise wouldn’t be reached,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, who took up Twittering after watching Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, tweet away at a posh Washington dinner. Her fan base: 15,000 and climbing.
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“I could see how it would be interesting to some people,” Martinez said. “It’s an audience that’s never going to see you on Meet the Press, but is hopefully interested in what government does.”
Some observers suggest the embrace of electronic networking by the Beltway crowd strips the once-trendy tools of what made them cool and cutting edge. Now they’re just another way for members of Congress to raise their profiles.
Martinez — and a host of other members of Congress — shared his thoughts via Twitter during President Barack Obama’s recent address to Congress, tapping out “Ambitious speech. Missed on nuclear as ‘green’ energy. He’s had a strong start. Well received speech in chamber. Has to reject earmarks.”
Martinez’s fellow Florida senator is no less a geek: “Renewing the push to upgrade benefits for widows and widowers of servicemembers,” Sen. Bill Nelson recently twittered. “I’ll be filing legislation soon.”
“I keep it pretty straight,” Martinez acknowledged. “Look at me, red tie, dark suit. I’m pretty much a straight up guy.” Still, he boasts more than 1,000 followers.
Some are a little less reserved: “UN chief told us that US is a deadbeat!!!” Ros-Lehtinen twittered after a recent closed-door meeting with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. “What nerve! We gave $4.1 billion to UN in 2007. Last yr: almost $5 billion. Deadbeat? Ludicrous.”
Rep. Vern Buchanan started tweeting about two weeks ago and is sold on the concept, said his spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts.
“It’s another opportunity to communicate with constituents, which he considers a top priority,” she said.
His twitters alert followers to his appearances on the floor — and last week to his opportunity to “grill the FDA” over last summer’s inaccurate warnings about tomato safety. On Friday, he provided a link to his letter to President Barack Obama asking him to demand an apology from Ban and reconsider US aid to the United Nations.
Experts suggest it was Obama’s success at harnessing social networking in last fall’s election that has members of Congress ramping up their skills.
“The multifaceted way he communicated via text and FaceBook was unprecedented,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is launching an RSS feed on her webpage so subscribers can get immediate alerts on her activities. “There’s a whole generation of Americans, that’s how they communicate now and you are really going to be isolated from them if you don’t reach out.”
Federal agencies are in the game as well: the Federal Emergency Management Agency has an account and Obama’s new pick for FEMA chief, Florida’s emergency management chief, Craig Fugate, already Twitters under the name, disastersareus. The day his new job was revealed, Fugate twittered, “Pigs do fly.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, isn’t twittering, but boasts he was the first Florida member of Congress to set up a FaceBook account, prior to the November 2008 election. It’s heavy on, surprise, pictures of Diaz-Balart in his official capacity as a member of Congress.
“It’s a phenomenon up here,” said Diaz-Balart. “It’s a way to be interactive, immediately.”
But he sounds a refrain familiar to social networkers: “It can really consume a lot of your time if you’re not careful.”
In January, Congress made its official YouTube debut with the launch of Senate Hub and House Hub — sites where members of Congress can post their own video clips. Congressional rules until recently had prevented members of Congress — but not their campaigns — from linking to sites such as YouTube.
“While we may not see eye to eye on everything, one thing we can agree on is the importance of utilizing technology to communicate with constituents,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in an introductory video in which she appeared with House Republican leader John Boehner.
Among the early adapters Democrats Kendrick Meek, Robert Wexler and Ron Klein, along with Miami Republicans Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, who is even posting video of previously closed-door meetings. Buchanan, too, posts videos of his appearances on the House floor. At Ros-Lehtinen’s office, those arriving for meetings are notified that they might appear online.
“Where are the YouTube cameras?” a city of Homestead official wondered aloud last week as she looked around Ros-Lehtinen’s office. An intern captured a few minutes of the meeting — putting it up on the site almost immediately.
“It’s an opportunity for constituents to see what happens up here,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We’re looking to get a whole new group of folks interested in the work we’re doing.”
Ros-Lehtinen insists her staffers edit “my shenanigans,” saying she prefers to appear “professional and serious,” but Ily TV is far from sedate.
“We’re Facebooking, we’re YouTubing, we’re everywhere,” she tells a visiting Homestead nursery owner. And she jokes with her Homestead visitors that she can’t tout federal dollars she’s pulled down for some of the cities in her district that sprawls from Miami Beach to Key West.
“We can’t brag about Coral Gables, everybody says ‘What! Aren’t they all millionaires?’” she exclaims in a clip now available on her YouTube channel. “When we get appropriations for Key West they say, ‘What! Everyone has a mansion on the beach there!’”