White House steps into blogger community

Officials look to tap into a new way of influencing lawmakers to move on legislation

Tim Chapman's blog

After watching bloggers prod Congress into action on a high-profile bill, Bush administration officials plan to tap into that community to build support for their agenda.

They plan to keep bloggers in the loop and share information on their initiatives, administration officials say. They might also highlight problem areas that they would like to see publicized, such as stalled legislation.

Bloggers, who are often unaffiliated with mainstream media outlets, generally do not generate original news stories. Instead, they prefer to provide links and commentaries for stories already in the news.

They also link freely to one another’s blogs, so a topic can quickly become hot. That is what the Bush administration wants to take advantage of.

Officials invited 10 bloggers to meet Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management, after President Bush signed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act into law Sept. 26. A host of bloggers supported the law and actively worked to ensure its passage.

“Clay asked them, ‘Gee, if you’re so good at this, can you help us with some of our other initiatives?’” OMB Director Rob Portman said that same day at a luncheon sponsored by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington, D.C.

The power of bloggers became apparent to the Bush administration — and everyone else — in August when bloggers tracked down Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who had placed an anonymous procedural block, called a hold, on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. The legislation calls for an online database of federal spending on contracts and grants.

The staff members of Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), an author of the bill, said last month that a Senate Democrat also had a hold on the bill. Some investigative work by bloggers identified the likely suspect as Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), ranking member of the Appropriations Committee. The hold was lifted, and the bill passed the Senate Sept. 8 by unanimous consent.

The Bush administration considers bloggers to be different from the mainstream media, said Tim Chapman, director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation. “Bloggers can be activists,” said Chapman, who has his own blog, TimChapmanBlog.com. It’s a movement the administration wants to use, he said.

Although the administration sees bloggers’ potential, bloggers say the astounding support for the bill was an anomaly. Some dismissed the idea that the Bush administration could yoke bloggers together for a single purpose.

“Trying to get right-of-center bloggers to get behind an agenda is extremely difficult,” said John Hawkins, a full-time blogger for Right Wing News, a conservative blog. “It’s like herding cats.”

Certain issues galvanize bloggers into action, but ultimately, they will decide what to advocate, said Matt Margolis, a writer for Blogs For Bush.

But some bloggers said working with them may help some causes. The best thing OMB can do is give them information about their initiatives, many bloggers say. Some want exclusive interviews with the president or press passes when Bush visits their hometowns.

Johnson said OMB had no strategy beyond shelling out information. The bloggers can report on what they want and expose their readership to it. He said he realizes the administration cannot control the topics that bloggers choose to pursue. But in general, they want to see a better-managed government.

“One of the things that occurred to me this past week was to let the bloggers know that there are certain members of Congress that don’t think we should be inclined to spend their money effectively,” Johnson said during the luncheon. “I may even mention a few of them.”

Johnson said Congress needs to learn more about important issues, such as e-government. He said one lawmaker did not know about e-government initiatives, despite serving on the committee that oversees them. Bloggers can educate lawmakers, he added.

Dylan Biles, who writes for the liberal blog Something Requisitely Witty and Urbane, said OMB can certainly further its goals by involving bloggers.

“In fact, I think most would say, ‘Welcome to the party,’” Biles said.

What’s a blog?A blog is an online journal in which people post entries about their political or personal interests and experiences. The term blog, which is shorthand for Web log, has spawned other new words and occupations, such as bloggers, blogging and blogosphere, to name a few.

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