Audio: Rep. Culberson on Twittering, Energy, and Science

By Timothy M. O'Brien
July 12, 2008 | Comments: 2

You may also download this file. Running time: 00:24:43

The following is an interview with US Congressman John Culberson of the 7th District of Texas. Culberson ignited something of a Twitterstorm this week by issuing a controversial and somewhat partisan call to arms over the effort to clarify rules governing Member access to social networking and media sites such as Twitter and Qik. Culberson was one of the first members of the Congress to sign up for Twitter and he has an active Qik channel despite the fact that current House rules prohibit him from using either site as a member of congress. In this interview, Culberson backs down from some of the partisan rhetoric he used earlier in the week and focuses his argument on the differences between old and new media. (jump to the end of this page for one of Culberson's Qik videos of the Mars Phoenix Lander Mission)

Highlights of the interview:

0:00 Introduction
1:50 Start of Interview
2:00 Culberson on Capuano and this week's controversy
7:45 Culberson on being a Real-Time Representative
~10:00 Confusion caused by campaign rules
11:45 Culberson on Wind Energy
17:20 Culberson on Federal Spending on Science
19:00 Culberson on Stem Cell Research

Update (7/13): Credit to Mike Masnick of TechDirt for identifying Schlumberger.


Today I interviewed U.S. Congressman John Culberson of 7th District of Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, John Culberson sounded the alarm on Twitter about the Franking Commission's efforts to reconsider member access to sites such as Twitter and Qik.

His initial call to arms on Wednesday contained some partisan elements. He was accusing the Democrats of trying to limit member access to sites such as Twitter.

Culberson was responding to a letter written by Michael Capuano, who is the Representative representing the 8th District of Massachusetts, also in the House of Representatives. Michael Capuano serves as the Chair of the Congressional Commission on Mailing Standards, otherwise known as the Franking Commission. In short, the Franking Commission exists as a way to ensure that a member of Congress doesn't use the privileges of being able to communicate freely with constituents as an unfair advantage in an election campaign.

So the Franking Commission gets involved in mail but also in electronic communications. When a member wants to link to their re-election campaign website, from their official site, the Franking Commission has a number of rules that are involved. Some of these rules are a little outdated.

For example, Members are not allowed to participate in sites that include advertising like Twitter or Qik or YouTube. Capuano wrote this letter as an attempt to start the ball rolling on some reforms in the Franking Commission and Culberson reacted with a partisan attack. While Culberson used this interview as an opportunity to back down from the partisan rhetoric, you do get the sense that there is still an underlying disagreement between him and Capuano.

I begin the interview by asking him if anyone in Congress has ever asked him to stop streaming live video.

TO: In terms of your use of Qik, has anyone ever said 'Listen, I just don't want to be recorded, turn it off.'?

JC: Sure.

TO: Who and where and when?

JC: Heh heh heh... Well I've already told the New York Times this, so, my friend Mike Capuano, who is a good man, with a good heart and good intentions, who represents Boston, he's a member of the Franking Committee, and he and I are genuinely good friends. I like him, and we get along very well. The other day when I first approached him on this and we discussed this, and I told him first of all, Mike -- you know I couldn't find him on the House floor, what was it Tuesday when all this first blew up, and I wanted to talk to him before I, you know, launched on Twitter, -- I told him I wouldn't launch on him again until I talked to him first, and that's just the fair thing to do as a friend. And I also promised him I'm going to keep Democrat and Republican out of it, and I think that's appropriate, cause I'm -- this whole debate is about First Amendment rights and access to government. And it's too important to be, for anybody to be distracted by partisan labels. So I told Mike that I'd keep the Democrat and Republican out of it, and I suggested to him then, this is on Wednesday, I uh, I said you know, Mike, the solution to this is to treat the new medium as we do old medium.

There's no way to regulate the new medium, uh, you're going to have about as much success as King Canute of the Vikings did when he had his soldiers to place his throne at the edge of the waves of the beach and he tried to order the tide not to come in. You just can't regulate it. It's like regulating the wind. And he fundamentally agrees. And I said, well Mike, I know you and I are on the same page on this, and I said I got my Qik camera right here, let's go out on the porch and let's do an interview. He just wasn't ready yet.

He said I just don't, I don't want to go on the record yet. And I don't -- that's his, he's the Chairman and I know we'll talk about this in due time. Um... and I've had others say that they didn't want to do it, but there's no reason other than that one and I know Mike is ok with me talking about it, because I defend his right to wait until he's ready to talk about it. He's a good guy, and we're working towards a good solution on this.

TO: Some people have attacked you for making the issue a bit more partisan than it needed to be.

JC: Absolutely, I agree and I never should have brought up Democrat or Republican. That's one of the wonderful things about the internet is that I was able to get some, you know I got some overwhelming support for this -- but my goal is not -- I'm not approaching this as a Republican. I made a mistake in even mentioning Democrat or Republican. And IÕm always going to talk about the House Leadership and that's a distraction and it's unnecessary. My goal is to shine a light into the Congress and I'll keep partisan labels out of it. And I'm going to stay focused on the goal.

The two things the internet has helped me do is the community has helped me understand to keep the partisan labels out of it, that's good advice which I have taken to heart. And the other good advice I got was that I mean and actually through this debate and TechnoSailor in particular, I think his name's Aaron, had some really good posts on his blog that kind of when you walk through his and a couple of other good blogs out there, I realize that I was targeting the wrong thing, that the existing rules make it illegal for me to post on Twitter, to post on a Qik website, under existing rules I'm operating in the Twilight Zone. So they're correct and it helped me realize my focus need to be that the Congress should treat congressional access to the new social media in the same way that Congress treats our access to the old traditional media,

I was just interviewed for the New York Times before I called you and the reporter for the New York Times asked me essentially and I mean a similar question, and I asked him, and I said, with this interview and your editors decide to use it in the print paper will be published in a newspaper that's going to contain commercial and political ads, right? And he said, well, yeah, sure. And I said, if you're going to use it on your website, you're also going to have commercial and political ads on the website. And he said of course, you know, you're going to have to pay for the website. Therefore, there's no logical distinction to him between the old medium and the new medium. Because the logic of what Capuano and the new leadership want to do, is they say it's inappropriate for us to post on a website that contains political speech, recommendations on elections or commercial advertising.

Well then why don't they keep us out of the newspapers? Why don't they keep us off of television? Why don't they keep us off of the radio? There's no distinction. So the internet community has helped me realize that that needs to be the focus and that's where I'm zeroed in, and there will be no more mention of party label.

TO: From your experience, how many members of Congress actually want you to be able to Twitter from the House floor? And how many do not?

JC: I couldn't put a number on it. Everyone I've spoken to has been, has been supportive of what I'm trying to do... it's been... there are some members who are as fascinated with technology as I am. I am particularly fascinated with technology. I love science. I love technology, I've always loved computers, I think I was the first elected official in the country to set up a legislative information bulletin board. I used a Macintosh Lisa in 1987 when I was first sworn into the Texas House of Representatives. I was in my second year of law school, and I had a Macintosh Lisa and I used a program called White Knight, and it was a White Knight bulletin board system and my staff and I would type in legislative information: the House floor calendar, legislative information, what I was doing, and then on I think Tuesdays or Thursday nights I would get on the bulletin board live and people could actually type me questions live and I could respond.

I remember there was a man who said he was blind and he had a voice synthesizer on his computer and he would use my legislative bulletin board information system and it would keep him updated on what the Texas Legislature was doing. So this is nothing new to me, I've always loved... I like being at the cutting edge of technology, and everyone I've talked to on the House floor has liked it, been a little charmed by it and interested and had a little fun teasing me about all the devices on my belt. My wife in particular has told me that I can't put 'em on my belt or she's going to pretend she doesn't know me. She says I define nerd. She's here in the room with me.

TO: You said you wanted to be a real-time Representative--

JC: Yes.

TO: on Qik.

TO: As more of your constituents realize that you're on line, that you're on Twitter that you're on Qik, are you afraid that you're going to reach a point where it's going to be overwhelming? Where the business of responding to this media will distract you from representing your district?

JC: Not yet. I mean I'll reach a point where I may ultimately have to... in terms of Qik I've already got about 1,200 followers and right now if I look... let me see, I've gotta refresh it... I think I've got uh... let me look at it and see... Um, I think now I've got 235 direct messages, I'm probably about 35 or 40 direct messages behind, and I have 1,120... well now 1126 followers. Yeah I could get overwhelmed here fairly soon. And the only time I get to look at it is in the evening or periodically during the day, uh, you know if my family goes to bed is when I'll jump on the computer because I'm a night owl anyway, but uh, yeah I could reach a point where it gets overwhelming and I may need to limit the direct messages if there's a way to filter Twitter to people that are actually, for example, I may try Texans first, and if that gets too big, then I'll try to limit it to Houstonians and I may have to limit it to District 7 and answer the others when I can.

You know I try to get... maybe there's a way that I can filter 'em so I can prioritize 'em so I can get the ones from constituents first.

TO: What equipment do you use to Twitter and Qik?

JC: Well I can Twitter directly from my computer here in the office, I also Twitter from my uh, you know I obviously have to have a -- I can't do any campaign work out of here -- I'm reminded of George -- two of my favorite shows are Seinfeld and Raymond. I don't know if you ever watch Seinfeld, but you remember when George had the girlfriend and Jerry brought the girlfriend to the apartment? Well anyway, George you know, went wild, because the girlfriend could never go to the apartment because the two worlds would go boom? I have to keep the campaign and the Federal office completely separate. So I have a campaign computer in an office set up at home, so I will Twitter from that one, and I also keep up with my, all the other blogs and whatnot from both computers.

Another point that I made in the interview with the leadership is frankly, I conducted the interview just before yours with the New York Times on this same phone in my official capacity, on an official telephone from my office in Washington. How do you distinguish? There's no way to distinguish. So just get rid of all the rules. It's ridiculous. Use common sense, I can't campaign or enrich myself using official resources, I can't video from the House floor, just, you know, trust us.

So I'm using both, I'm using both the computer desktop, and I'm also Twittering using a blackberry, a campaign blackberry, the uh Federal Blackberry, and I do the Qik videos, I have either a Nokia 95 8 gig phone that does the high resolution streaming video. Uh, but I'm not sure yet, House Franking does not know what to do with me. They're not sure how to categorize me. My wife says she doesn't know what to do with me.

For example, they can't figure out -- I figured out I could put a... I do telephone town hall meetings, Tim, where I have uh software program that will dial say 70 to 100,000 households in my district and they can listen in to a conference calls like this one, and they can ask me questions live on the phone. So I did a combination the other night, telephone town hall meeting using live streaming video, they can watch me on the website, on my website, they can text me questions on my website, they can talk to me on the telephone or they can ask me questions on Twitter.

House Franking has no clue what to do with that. They can't even figure out how to get their arms around it. So I was told once I can Qik with my Federal phone, Mike Capuano told me the other day he thinks I have to use my campaign phone. Who knows? We're still working it out.

TO: Your opponent in this year's election is Michael Skelly, he's a former Wind Energy executive. Given your support for the expansion of oil drilling off shore and the expansion of the oil resources, I want to know how you feel that wind energy specifically can fit into the mix?

JC: That's an easy question, wind energy is an important part of the solution to make America energy independent. We need to basically check all the boxes on the list of things we need to do to make America energy independent, but we need to do it without subsidies. I strenuously oppose subsidies for any industry out there and it is heavily subsidized as is ethanol, as are biofuels, as are a number of other alternative energy sources. And I particularly resent the fact that the majority party in Congress passed a, I think it was a 15 billion dollar tax increase on just the American oil companies late last year and then handed the money over to the alternative energy guys so essentially part of the money you're paying at the pump when you're you know filling up your car with a $70 tank of gas, a chunk of that money is going straight to these alternative energy guys that are heavily subsidized.

That's just wrong. I'm a free market, Jeffersonian Republican, and particularly with the price of oil at $130, $140, $150 a barrel, the competition, the alternative energy guys, should certainly be able to compete without subsidies.

TO: As a Representative from Texas, do you agree or disagree with the statement that the United States needs to move away from fossil fuels towards an economy based on renewables based on things such as wind or solar?

JC: Yes. I'm passionate about shifting away from a fossil fuel economy and looking to invest in the long term energy independence of the United States and the way we get there, is to drill here, drill now, and we will pay less, in every domestic oil field that we can access we should be drilling. It can be done cleanly. I'm proud to represent many of the major oil companies in the United States, and I know as a.. I'm like a 4th generation Houstonian, 5th generation Texan, and they're drilling right off the beach at Galveston, and you can stand on the seawall and see the jacked up oil rigs a few hundred yards off shore -- there's no tar balls, there's no pollution. Hurricane Ivan for example severed multiple underwater oil pipelines there were no leaks. Because the technology is so good they can drill cleanly, safely, anywhere in the world and we've got vast quantities of natural resources, oil, natural gas, shale oil. There's more shale oil in the United States than there is oil in the entire Middle East.

Schlumberger ( estimates that about 4 trillion barrels of recoverable shale oil in just a three western states alone, and there's about a trillion barrels in the ground in the oil in the middle east. So, short term -- drill here, pay now, pay less. Intermediate term we've got to open up shale oil, liquefied coal, nuclear power, frankly, I personally think we ought to build, since Nevada is 99% federally owned we ought to build 25, 30 nuclear power plants in Nevada, store the waste right there, then you have all the waste right there.

I don't know if you need 25 or 30, but build a bunch of nuclear power plants in Nevada, to take much of the much of the western United States off of coal-fired or natural gas fired plans and you can store the waste right there in Nevada. And then for the ... of course that intermediate equation is going to include wind energy and bio fuels, but just let them do it in the marketplace, they ought to be able to do it without the subsidies and then finally for the long term, to wrap up a long answer to an important question, in my mind the best solution to make America energy independent the best solution is nanotechnology. And in particular, carbon nano-tubes. I represent Rice University.

Dr. Rick Smalley who just passed away a year ago October, a Nobel prize-winning scientist at Rice who discovered the structure of the Carbon 60 molecule, the buckyball, was the first to manufacture or produce carbon nanotubes recoverable quantities and his laboratory, which was named after him -- the Smalley Institute at Rice, is developing the quantum wire which is using Carbon nanotubes. They're attempting to spin them into wires so that you could transmit -- not conduct -- but transmit electricity from LA to NY on a wire the width of your little finger and carry 10 to 20 times the electricity carried on those gigantic overhead powerlines with zero loss of electricity due to resistance, or electromagnetic radiation because the electrons are traveling ballistically down this hollow, carbon nanotube.

Finally, the carbon nanotechnology, Tim, will allow us to build a machine about the size of a washing machine that would be able to store electricity. You could buy it off the grid at night, store it and run all of your appliances and charge up your electric car -- which carbon nanotubes won't solve the battery storage problem. The carbon nanotubes allow you to store the electricity in this device your home, and then you've got a truly distributed network, which coupled with intelligent electric meters which Center Point Energy in Houston is one of the first in the nation to distribute, the consumer will be able to monitor their use of electricity using the intelligent meter, choosing to run the washing machine or dryer at night when there's less draw on the grid. They'll be able to use this washing machine device to run all the devices in their home on their own. That solution right there, the distributed network with free people, making free choices, in a free market, will allow the United States to become completely energy independent in the years to come.

TO: Many of the solutions to the energy problem that you just discussed require a commitment to scientific research.

JC: I'm passionate about it.

TO: Given your commitment to science, do you think America's losing its edge? We're about to lay off particle physicists at FERMI lab and NASA's about to enter a four year period between 2010 and the completion of the Aries I rocket during which it will lose the capability to launch a human into space.

JC: It's appalling.

TO: You sit on the House Appropriations Committee, what are your fiscal priorities for 2009 in terms of science and research?

JC: Top priority to me is to double the budget of the National Science Foundation, Congress needs to double the budget of the National Institute of Health, we need to double the investment that we're making in energy research, particularly in the Department of Energy and create a Manhattan style project of making America energy independent in the next ten years and at the same time making sure that we maintain our competitive edge in the world through a massive investment in the National Science Foundation and then also I think we should do a Manhattan style project of curing cancer with an investment in the competitive peer review process at the National Institutes of Health.

I actually feel very strongly that it is not the job of Congress or politicians or elected officials to micromanage or direct the spending of scientific research dollars that should all be driven by the scientists or the engineers or the doctors through a peer reviewed competitive grant process that they do so well. And the problem is that Congress has invested money on an up and down -- you know from year to year the funding bounces around. We need a steady, predictable growth pattern with a commitment by the Congress over a five year to seven year period, whatever it takes to double the amount of money we're spending on peer reviewed, scientific grants at the National Science Foundation, at the National Institutes of Health, the Energy Department and frankly the National Institutes of Standards and Technology. And get out of the way and let the scientists and engineers drive the dollars. It's not only FERMI lab, uh, Tim, but it's not only the fact that we will not be able to fly, to launch a human into space for a period of about five years, we will not have, I think we will lose all the particle accelerators.

Europe is gonna have all the particle accelerators, in a matter of years we won't, I think have any -- we may have one particle accelerator physics for you know the fundamental research that has to be done into the nature of matter with the high energy particle accelerators. Those will all be shut down in the United States. We're not doing the fundamental research that they're doing in aerodynamics. There's unfortunately a short term mentality that is all too prevalent in Congress and in the Executive Branch -- Democrat and Republican -- Tim, not to think about the long term investment in the sciences. I look at it as a national insurance policy. The best way to assure the future economic prosperity of the country is to make a long term investment into the sciences. You won't get any disagreement with me out of that.

I'm an ardent fiscal conservative. The starting answer is no on all new spending, it's hard to get to yes. I'm on the Appropriations Committee, I don't like to spend money, I don't want to add to the national deficit, but the one area we've got to invest big dollars in is in the National Science Foundation and
National Institutes of Health and fundamental scientific research. So no argument with me there.

TO: In the past you've voted against stem-cell research. Could you reconcile that vote with the statement you just made about letting the scientists decide which science to fund. That we should "get out of the way."

JC: Well we have a... the law should always favor life. Law should always create an environment that favors life. And if the law creates an environment in which it is permissible to create human beings for the purpose of harvesting them like a crop of corn, that's an appalling and dangerous world we've entered in to. And the problem I've always had with the bills we've been presented with is that no matter how they've been drafted, and no matter how carefully they tell me they have tried to design them, each bill creates an atmosphere in which it is perfectly legal to create a batch of fertilized human embryos for the purpose of dropping them into a blender and harvesting them like a crop of corn and my daughter, our kids, you Tim, you are not an ear of corn.

TO: Speaking of corn, do we need tighter, stricter regulations on genetically modified crops?

JC: No, that's a crop, that's a plant. I have absolutely no problem. Science, the increases we've seen in America in productivity, the tremendous advantage America has always had since we've been created is a direct result of individual freedom and that freedom has to extend to the scientific community in particular and you've got to let the scientists and engineers and the doctors drive the research, but the law fundamentally has to draw some boundaries.

There has to be a fundamental moral foundation to the nation that is defined by the law and if the law permits human beings to be created and harvested like a crop of corn, I think it's just an extraordinarily dangerous and appalling future that we've set out for ourselves, it's just something I think that morally that you can't justify. If there are for example, I think the President was right to set aside existing stem cell lines if there's apparently more that the... of the lines that he set forth there are a only handful that are viable.

But I would point you to, I've been a subscriber to the Journal of Nature and Science for many, many, many years, I'm an amateur astronomer, I'm an amateur geologist always loved planetary sciences. I'm a mineral and fossil collector. I've always been fascinated with science, so I read those journals cover to cover, I don't pretend to completely understand a lot of the molecular the biological articles that I read, but I've a pretty good grasp on a lot of the others, and I have seen articles for example recently in one of the November 2007 issues of Nature they reported on a group of Japanese scientists who added five growth factors to adult stem cells and converted those adult skin cells into pluri-potent skin cells that could then grow into any number of different things.

Now if we're able to extract stem cells from amniotic fluid, which they can, if we're able to convert adult cells into stem cells, which we can, if you're able to extract from other sources, if you're able to extract and create stem cells from any source other than a human embryo, you don't need to go there. You don't need to create an environment in which human beings are created and harvested like a crop of corn.


Footnote: Culberson's Qik of the Mars Phoenix Landing from JPL

Agree or disagree with his politics, you can't deny that this is one interesting individual. We'll leave you with a selection from Culberson's very active Qik channel. This video relates to chromatic's recent interview with NASA's Peter Gluck of the Mars Phoenix mission. Culberson sat in on the landing from JPL, and streamed it live to Qik with his Nokia:

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Heh, on the question about who he's referencing on "Schamburget" the answer is Schlumberger ( They're HUGE in the oil business.

Thanks Mike, I guess this means that I'm going to be linking to TechDirt at least once in the next ten stories I write.

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