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Washington, DC 20003
80 M Street SE
Washington, DC 20003
View full article at Miami Herald
BY LESLEY CLARK crline lclark@MiamiHerald.com
WASHINGTON — To the past episodes of Mad Men and Jersey Shore available via cable on-demand, now add the Capitol Hill and South Florida adventures of Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The Miami Republican and Broward Democrat are among the early adopters of a new congressional perk — their very own on-demand cable channel, available 24-7, with a few clicks of the remote.
Both “MiCongress'' channels are now live on Comcast, giving cable subscribers a chance to see their local congresswomen at work on Capitol Hill and meeting with constituents back home in their districts.
“It gives people the ability to watch a program about what's going on in Washington and the district from the comfort of their own home,'' said Ros-Lehtinen. “They don't even have to put on their best pjs to watch `Ileana On-Demand.' ''
Wasserman Schultz has added videos that include her explaining to viewers how her office can help with constituent matters, such as securing Medicare and veterans' benefits.
“This is a way to let people go with me, behind the scenes and to show the inner workings, what our office is doing,'' Wasserman Schultz. “A lot of people don't know they can call the office if they have a problem.''
Critics, though, deride the shows as another benefit for entrenched congressional incumbents — at a cost to taxpayers. The $2,000 per month cost for the channel is paid for out the same congressional account that pays for the glossy mailers members of Congress traditionally send to their constituents.
“It's really nothing but a campaign commercial on behalf of the lawmakers paid for in part by taxpayer dollars,'' said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a government watchdog group. He noted that the channels can remain on the air during campaign season, unlike congressional mailers which can't go out 90 days before an election. “It's quite a perk for incumbents,'' he said.
In Orlando, Rep. Alan Grayson, a Democrat, has caused a stir by spending $73,000 from the “franking'' fund to mail a 90-minute DVD to constituents. The Orlando Sentinel reported last week that a Republican challenger is suing Grayson over the mailer.
The cable channels must follow some of the same rules as mailers: no partisan politicking. But there's little else to distinguish the videos from campaign ads: they feature dramatic music and testimonials from grateful constituents.
Washington-area entrepreneur Stuart Shapiro, whose company iConstituent, developed the concept, told the Washington Post in June that he thought lawmakers have an image problem. They “have such a passion for caring for their constituents, but it's not being reflected out in the real world,'' he said.
Ros-Lehtinen and Wasserman Schultz — who will face challengers in November but are considered safe re-election bets — defend the cable spots as way to communicate to a generation more tuned into television than text.
“Not everyone is interested in getting mail, but there is interest in television,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. “As elected officials, we are accountable to voters and we want to tell them what we are doing.''
Donna Milo, one of Wasserman Schultz's Republican opponents, called the practice “appalling'' and said she would propose legislation to bar members of Congress from spending tax dollars on such ventures.
“It'a an awful idea that our Congress has yet another tool at taxpayers' expense to keep them as perputally entrenched politicians,'' Milo said.
But Wasserman Schultz said she believes the channel dispels myths about Congress — “that we do our work in the dark and people don't have access.
“Far too many people think the only people who have access to us are the special interest groups,'' Wasserman Schultz said. “If I show people what's going on, open the system up and create an opportunity, they're more likely to see Congress as accessible.''
And she notes, her channel will reach cable subscribers — supporters as well as opponents. “If we weren't communicating, we'd get criticized for that,'' she said.
Ros-Lehtinen, who has also embraced Twitter and YouTube — tweeting a link to her cable debut — said her office is always looking for new ways to engage consitutuents. Future episodes, her staff said, could include interviews with newsmakers, such as oil spill response director Thad Allen or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for beach renourishment. They hope to engage viewers to tell them what issues they'd like to see covered.
“It's a fast-paced life in Miami, with everyone trying to grab your attention,'' Ros-Lehtinen said. “We're always looking for the new technology to be heard.''
Her three-minute debut includes a little biography, photos of her parents leaving Cuba, as well as footage of Ros-Lehtinen meeting with constituents to talk about issues she champions: a bill to crack down on Medicare fraud, dredging the Miami River and renourishing South Florida beaches. There's also a tribute to her staff and video of Ros-Lehtinen hotfooting it over to the Capitol to cast a vote.
“That's why I wear comfortable shoes,'' Ros-Lehtinen quips, noting she has minutes to make it to the House floor. “That's the key to being a successful congresswoman!''
Wasserman Schultz's video features footage of her chairing a house budget committee and boasting of securing aid to South Florida for taking in Haitian students after the earthquake. There's also a bit of a district travelogue with tours of Jaxson's Ice Cream Parlour in Dania Beach and Mo's Bagel & Deli in Aventura.
“Can I get a root beer float to go?'' Wasserman Schultz asks at Jaxson's.
To watch the episodes, tune into “My Government'' or “MiCongress'' on Comcast Cable, channel 888. Or, at the “On Demand'' main menu, browse for “Searchlight,'' and find the “My Government'' and “MiCongress'' folders.
For constituents without cable, members of Congress say they plan to send online links to the videos.