We talk frequently about "Web 2.0" here at Sunlight. (Yes, we know that's a "buzzword" but it's a handy way of describing the new "read-write" culture of today's Web.) We think a lot about what it means for how Congress presents itself to and interacts with the public. Sunlight's fascinated by (some might say obsessed) with how the interactivity and transparency potential of the Internet can change the relationship between lawmakers and their constituents. How citizens can use the Internet to hold lawmakers more accountable for their votes, their earmarks, who they meet with, and what they say when debating legislation. (To wit, see what Rep. George Miller announced yesterday.) We use Web 2.0 "criteria" for our grant making, making sure that organizations we fund use the Internet in creative, interactive, and as a two-way street in their overall strategy. Even the databases we fund (arguably very Web 1.0 tools) have to be developed with the capacity to be exported in formats that others can use to mash different data sets together.
Writing in Roll Call, Paul Singer notes (subscription only) that one of Rep. Alan Mollohan's earmarks -- $1 million to acquire land to expand the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Northeast West Virginia -- also happens to be in an area with which Mollohan has some familiarity:
...Mollohan owns two properties in Tucker County, near the boundaries of the refuge — one with a home and an adjacent lot, the other a lot with no building — that he lists on his financial disclosure forms as being worth a total of $550,000 to $1,100,000. With two ski resorts nearby and several housing developments along the same road, local officials say property values are skyrocketing in the area, and placing more land off-limits to development will simply increase the price of the existing lots.
Americans for Prosperity are already digging into the lists of earmarks that the House has released so far -- here they note that Rep. Jerry Lewis requested $500,000 to refurbish a Washington, D.C., Metro station that's four blocks from his house, and here they note that, just as Rep. Chakah Fattah has been good to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (he requested a $100,000 earmark for it), PMA's board members have been good to him (a little over $10,000 in contributions). Oh, and his wife is a board member too.
Yesterday, the Senate moved one step closer to passing S. 1639, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, which has been less than popular with the public, and with those on the left, the center left, the center right and the right. Of course, some are supporting the bill, but sadly, lobbying records are no help in determing who might be supporting it.
As David All and I have written, the rules governing member Web sites are not fit for the 21st Century Web. If the rules were enforced with any regularity, instead of used as a scarecrow to keep members from innovating, then some of the best practices by members on the Web wouldn't be happening. Case in point: Rep. George Miller (D-CA).
Today, George Miller announced a new campaign, called "Ask George," calling on citizens to send videos, through video sharing sites like YouTube, to Miller's office regarding the War in Iraq. Miller's office describes "Ask George" as a "distributed, virtual town hall". Miller also suggests that participants in this conversation "tag" their videos "askgeorge" so that his office can go and find the questions. This way, Miller is the one going out to seek the conversation rather than the citizen or constituent who is usually the one seeking out the congressman.
Who knew a little bill requiring senators to file their campaign finance reports electronically could cause such a problem on Capitol Hill? Today, Senate Republicans under the stewardship of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried their hand at a parliamentary trick to add poison pill amendments to S. 223. When Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to move S. 1, the Senate' lobbying reform package, to conference committee Sen. Bob Bennett attempted to add S. 223 while reserving the right to add another amendment. Bennett likely wanted to slip in the same amendment that he tried to add to S.223 when it was in committee. That amendment would allow party committees, like the RNC or the DSCC, to coordinate campaign activities with candidate committees. Bennett's amendment is widely opposed by the majority Democrats and would not only make S. 223's passage impossible in conference or in the House of Representatives, but would endanger the entire lobbying and ethics reform package. Reid scuttled this parliamentary trickery by objecting to Bennett's proposition. The Senate went into convulsions and recessed without advancing S. 1 to conference committee. (There are some conflicting accounts of exactly how this proceeded.))
Since the Senate minority is upping the ante with procedural tricks, the Sunlight Foundation has decided to up the ante on Mitch McConnell. Today, Sunlight announced the extension of the deadline for our campaign to get Mitch McConnell on the record responding to questions about the continued blocking of S. 223. Not only is the deadline extended but the prize money is doubled. You will now receive $1,000 if you are the first to submit a video of McConnell responding to questions about the bill. Check out What's McConnell Hiding? for more details.
While Sunlight is mostly focused on Congressional transparency we can't help but notice that there is a presidential campaign going on. Sen. Barack Obama announced his positions last week for ethics and transparency reform.
Obama's reform agenda uses the Web in a significant fashion. There are lots of things I like in his proposal including the core concept of "Google for Government (information)," which in my mind means creating searchable, online databases as a requirement for government agencies' work. (Let's hope that as president Obama would also champion legislative changes that will allow for citizens to learn more about Congress' activities -- expanding what is currently reported and making it all available online in searchable databases.) Given the fact that Obama is a leader on government transparency issues in the Senate now, his willingness to talk about these issues demonstrates his commitment to them and his understanding that the public strongly favors more transparency by the government.
In Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" Rep. John Conyers makes a stunning admission that is actually a widely known fact in Washington. Conyers states that no member of Congress read the Patriot Act before voting for it. In fact most bills aren't read by congressmen or their staff because they aren't released in a timely fashion. Just as stunning to the public, and to many members of Congress, was the outcome of the fight over the 2003 Medicare bill. The bill was introduced moments before an all-night session, preventing legislators from being able to read the bill. The bill passed with most members having no idea of the provisions slipped into the bill and no one knowing the true final cost. More recently, liberal and conservative bloggers have raised the issue of prompt bill release over the immigration bill and free trade agreements.
Just last week, Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA) introduced H. Res. 504, which would require all bills to be posted online 72 hours before
they are voted on floor debate begins. This bill would greatly alter the dynamic by which bills are considered in the House. Passage of H. Res. 504 would mean that each piece of legislation will receive greater citizen input and greater scrutiny from the media and from legislators themselves. This bill is an essential piece to changing the way business is done in Washington and changing the dynamic between citizens and their representatives. Last year the bill (then H. Res. 688) was cosponsored by 36 members of Congress. Check out Read the Bill's arguments for why this bill should pass.
Newsday had a really good earmarks story yesterday that brought the earmarks story home to Long Islanders. It keys off our Visualization of Earmarks release of last week. This story would work well for any media outlet.
How many earmarks -- and for what -- did your state get compared to the citizens of Alaska? And did your members of Congress get to weigh the relative value of the earmarks she or he requested versus those for other regions of the country? Isn't a little more accountability for earmarks necessary? Sunlight thinks so.