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Pence Blasts Off to Blogosphere

Today, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a self-described “Internet geek,” will boldly go where no other Member has gone before: He is launching the first ongoing personal weblog, or “blog,” on a Congressional-office home page.

Blogs have become a hot forum for Internet communication during the past several years, with countless electronic diaries — some polished, others raw — popping up everywhere from personal home pages to corporate Web sites. But until now, Capitol Hill lawmakers have largely refrained from colonizing the “blogosphere.”

Pence said his foray was prompted by an interest in creating “transparency” for his constituents. Posting a rolling diary of events on-line, he figured, seemed like the perfect way to do just that.

“People can literally go on the Web, and on a daily, if not hourly basis, they can be up to date on what their Congressman is working on, [understand] the reasons for his votes, and fairly readily research just about any area that we’ve made statements or cast votes,” said Pence, who plans to offer his constituents his insights both on and off Capitol Hill.

“I’m a guy who does 50 town hall meetings a year,” he said. “I envision climbing into the car as I head down Highway 3 and offering a few sentences of reflections on issues that came up and questions that were addressed.”

Kathy Goldschmidt, director of technology services for the Congressional Management Foundation, called Pence’s dive into the world of blogging a “great thing.”

Until now, blogs have had a limited presence on the Hill.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) put a blog up on her Web site to track the trip she took to Iraq last October, while Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) uses one each August to track the annual road trip he takes across his home state.

The legislative staff of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) keeps a blog of sorts on his Web site. But while this blog updates readers on Senate floor action, it does not provide any personal insights from Leahy himself.

Similarly, the blogs posted on the campaign Web sites of both President Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry include links to news coverage, dispatches from campaign workers and talking-points posted by campaign insiders, rather than expressing the personal off-the-cuff thoughts of the candidate.

The Congressional Management Foundation’s Congress Online Project wonders if blogs could in fact serve a “broader purpose” for Members.

“The casual, unscripted nature of blogs would likely make Congressional press secretaries cringe. But, in the hands of a dedicated and innovative Member, a blog could be an insightful and educational way to inform constituents about your legislative efforts,” the April edition of the CMF’s Congress Online Newsletter suggested. “It could even be easier than producing an e-newsletter!”

Blogs, Goldschmidt said, enable “a real sense of the Member as a person, as an entity … and therefore brings a sense of accountability and a sense of humanity to the constituents who are reading this.”

She noted that blogs are “more personal and liable to be less rhetoric-laden than a press release.”

For Pence, his blog’s nerve center is the BlackBerry he’s kept with him since 2000. The Indiana lawmaker plans to update his scrolling blog frequently, by tapping a note into the small portable e-mail device.

“If I didn’t have a BlackBerry,” Pence explained, “it would be a huge burden to sit down at the end of the day. But like most Members of Congress, I probably type 100 to 150 e-mails to staff a day.”

Pence, in fact, has always been on the technological cutting edge. In 2000, before most Americans even knew what a BlackBerry was, Pence ordered one for himself and for his chief of staff.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he held the small device in the palm of his hand as he stood in between then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) in the Capitol Police commander’s office trying to make sense of all the chaos of that day.

“None of their [phone] systems worked,” Pence said, recounting how his brother was e-mailing him messages and stories explaining what was going on. “DeLay and Gephardt were looking over my shoulder and saying ‘What is that thing? How come it’s working?’” Pence recalled.

Within a week, House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) decided that every lawmaker in the House would be receiving a BlackBerry, to improve communications in the event of another national catastrophe.

All told, the House spent $6 million outfitting Members and key staffers with the devices. Congress has since become so wedded to the BlackBerry that last year the Chief Administrator of the House intervened in a patent-related lawsuit filed against BlackBerry’s manufacturer to ensure that the lawmakers’ systems would continue to work.

Pence said he’s excited about this latest innovation, which was created by Rightclick Strategies, a politically right-of-center Web design firm.

“It’s been my intention to really push the envelope on our Web site and do the kinds of things that in a matter of a couple years will be very, very common,” Pence said. “I will expect this idea, of a scrolling weblog, will be a very common feature on Members’ Web sites, within three to five years, the way it is on many other news Web sites.”

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