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Can Congress cope with the communications age?


Fri, Apr 24th, 2009
Posted in Commentary



When I first came to Congress in the 1960s, dialogue between members of Congress and their constituents was straightforward. Every so often, a lawmaker would get interviewed on radio or television. Many sent monthly newsletters to the folks back home. They responded to letters, fielded and made telephone calls, and met as often as possible with the people who had sent them to Washington. It was by no means a perfect system - unless they made extraordinary efforts, legislators were often in touch with a smaller cross-section of the population than they should have been - but it worked tolerably well and was readily managed.

Today, something very like the opposite situation prevails: lawmakers are deluged by e-mail messages from constituents and grassroots lobbying campaigns; they can be in touch with millions of people at the press of a "send" button or via a quick upload to YouTube; they can blog about their experiences on the floor of the House, hold videoconferences or telephone town meetings with people back home, and Twitter their thoughts to followers any time of the day or night.

The technology allowing communications between ordinary Americans and their elected representatives, in other words, is superb. Yet for all the words that flow back and forth between Capitol Hill and the country at large, it's not at all clear how much actual dialogue is taking place.

Part of this is a function of sheer volume. As the Congressional Management Foundation wrote in a 2008 report after surveying ordinary citizens and lawmakers and their staffs about their use of the Internet, "[T]echnological developments have been so rapid that neither citizens and the organizers of grassroots advocacy campaigns (the senders) nor congressional offices (the receivers) have learned to use it in ways that facilitate truly effective communications between citizens and Members of Congress. As a result, while more messages are being sent to Congress, it seems less actual communication is occurring."

The survey found that no one is happy with the situation: Hill staffers feel overwhelmed, while almost half the people who wrote to Congress and received a reply were dissatisfied with the response and almost two-thirds believed their representatives "were not interested in what they have to say."

Let's be clear about what's at stake here. A representative democracy depends on the give-and-take between lawmakers and those they represent. Wh .....
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One moment, please...

Fri, Apr 17th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

Growing up in Rochester quite a number of years ago, I didn't recall Lanesboro having the reputation for being a tourist destination the way it does now. My memory is slipping, but it seems that has evolved in the past couple decades to something qu ..... 
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Even in an economic crisis, follow the money

Sat, Apr 11th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

Recently, Newsweek looked at Federal Election Commission records and made an intriguing discovery. The political action committees of five major recipients of federal bank bailout money, it found, made some $85,000 in campaign contributions in Janua ..... 
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History rewritten

Fri, Apr 10th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

I'd like to pretend that nothing interesting happened in the world prior to my entrance but there is evidence to the contrary. I can argue, however, that there was no color at all- I've seen the photos.

Being born just after WWII, my public ..... 
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One moment, please...

Fri, Apr 10th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

By a show of hands, who actually likes receiving junk mail and e-mail spam?

Okay, that was supposed to be a rhetorical question. No hands were supposed to go up. I guess there is a fetish for everything, including indignant and fraudulant ma ..... 
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Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas

Fri, Apr 10th, 2009
Posted in Commentary



On March 19, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released the first ever comprehensive report on bird populations in the United States, showing that nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significa ..... 
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One moment, please...

Fri, Apr 3rd, 2009
Posted in Commentary

There were lots of interesting things going on in the news this past week.

Impeached former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (careful how you say that - your kids might be within earshot), and his plentiful head of hair, were indicted on 16 ..... 
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Duel: France and America, scalpels at 10 paces

Fri, Apr 3rd, 2009
Posted in Commentary

I picked France because it is the poster child of indulgent laziness and "nanny statism" for all those rugged individualists who live by the code "I made mine all by myself without help from anyone, now you get yours without help from me."

..... 
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Spring will come

Sat, Mar 28th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

Maybe what we all need is a little pep talk. The news these days is heavily burdened with bad economic information and we at the same time are finally putting a long winter behind us. The grass will soon be turning green and those hardy Crocus and D ..... 
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