Debt ceiling debate in 140 characters

Can you influence Congress in 140 characters or less?

The debt ceiling debate that dominated the news through much of July spawned some stories that suggested that perhaps you can.

One such report, from Los Angeles Times blogger Andrew Malcolm, highlights the influence Twitter has come to have on national debates as the White House and members of Congress sought suitable hashtags to help spread their messages.

A hashtag on Twitter is a word or phrase preceded by the # symbol. If people who are interested in a certain topic or argument add the same hashtag to their posts, the posts become more easily searchable. If enough people tweet using a certain hashtag, it has a shot at being listed among Twitter’s trending topics, thereby attracting even more attention.

Malcolm reports that a New York Times reporter was accused of providing the hashtag “#compromise” to the White House, but an analysis of her Twitter stream confirmed her explanation that she had merely asked the Obama administration if it had a search term she could use to find relevant tweets.

“So, despite accusations the White House didn't have a written-out plan for tackling the national debt and the debt ceiling, it apparently had full ownership of the #compromise hashtag, even if it took a question from a reporter to get it to come up with one,” Malcolm writes.

The White House was admittedly a little late to the hashtag party having come up with the #compromise tag on July 29, well into the heated debate. New York Times blogger Michael Shear offered more insight into its political meaning.

“Mr. Obama and his top aides have been eager throughout the debt debate to cast the president as the one interested in compromise, a position they hope will appeal directly to the moderate and independent voters that will help him get re-elected next year,” Shear writes. “The effort to be seen as the compromiser has been made easier by the contrast with House Republicans, and especially Tea Party members, who have said they will not compromise their principles."

Did the #compromise hashtag help? According to Joseph Marks, writing at, White House officials believe it did. On July 29, the White House asked its Twitter followers to send tweets to their members of Congress urging a deal.

But Marks also throws some cold water on the notion: Only 2 percent of Americans use Twitter to engage in politics, and only 8 percent use Twitter at all, he reports, citing a study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project.

“A rush of tweets can be a siren song for some elected officials who mistake it for the actual voice of their constituency,” Marks writes. “Whether the White House is right or wrong in its assertion, it's a bad sign when the mania reaches either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Workforce worries

Twitter was hardly the only story to come out of the debt ceiling debate. Once again, the federal workforce was under fire and worried about a government shutdown and furloughs. As the debate raged on, the Federal Aviation Administration went into a partial shutdown over an unrelated congressional stalemate, which threw thousands of employees into unpaid time off and stoked fears that the experience might soon become more widespread.

The compromise deal didn’t fully eliminate those worries. In the Washington Post’s "Federal Eye" blog, Joe Davidson, Joe Davidson notes that although there were no specific measures targeting the workforce in the compromise, the overall budget reductions would be sure to hit feds hard.

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, said White House officials had told him that agency budgets would be cut to the degree that staffing levels would be affected, Davidson reports.

“Those impacts could be significant,” he writes. “Cutting the budget by $1 trillion over 10 years means agency reductions likely will be felt by the federal workforce. But while proposals that would have hit federal employees directly were considered by congressional and administration negotiators, their pay, retirement and their jobs are safe for the moment."

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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