Weighing in on Reform


Now that the election dust is settling and everyone is talking about reform in Congress, it's time for Sunlight to weigh into that discussion. We comment with some past experience: I've certainly been around the reform bandwagon a couple times (in the campaign finance arena), and so I am cautious about how all the talk will pan out. I know we have to push hard to make sure that reform doesn't settle on some lowest common denominator.

Here's where we are coming from: we strongly believe that greater transparency is an antidote to corruption – the issue that drove most voters this year. We know the public supports reforms that create greater transparency, overwhelmingly in fact, and frankly it would be shocking if lawmakers didn't seize this unique moment to enact reforms that open up their activities to real scrutiny. More transparency for what happens on Capitol Hill will breed more trust with their constituents.

It couldn't be more obvious that we have to update and expand the reporting requirements for lawmakers and lobbyists. There must be greater transparency for the legislative process and for Congress' dealings with the regulatory agencies. Right now the public suspects the worst about Congress and its members. Could the polls be any lower? (Scroll down for information on Congress.) Let's open up Congress to some scrutiny so that the public can see what is really going on.

We have a long list of ideas we'd like to see Congress pursue along these lines: proposals like publishing their official calendar would be at the top of that list, so too would be applying FOIA to Congress. But we are realistic in what we think can be achieved at this point in time and so we have identified three specific priorities for the incoming Congress. They would all create meaningful change, and we believe they are achievable in the short term:

1) Contemporaneous online filing. The currently required public reports required of lawmakers should be filed electronically and shared online within 24 hours of their filing.(Eventually we'd like to see the filing deadlines occur much more frequently.)

2) Ending secret legislation. All earmarks, bills, and amendments should include an identification of the proposing Member's name. All non-emergency legislation should be posted online, in its final form, at least 72 hours before a vote.

3) Meaningful lobbyist disclosure. All who are paid to engage in direct issue advocacy with lawmakers and their staff should be required to register, and all registered lobbyists should disclose all legislative contacts, all legislation and regulations discussed, all contributions they make and coordinate to Members and organizations affiliated with members, all prior government employment, and any relationship to a current Member of Congress, staff member, or executive branch employee. All lobbyist reports should be filed online within 24 hours of any meeting or contribution.

It is time for Congress to enter the Information Age – time to combine the nearly century old wisdom of Justice Louis Brandeis, that "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman" – with modern technology. An effective commitment by Congress to the transparency that current technology makes possible would be a valuable first step towards restoring public trust, which is at a particularly low point. Providing timely online access to information about the Congress and its members will enable citizens and the press to better understand the activities of their lawmakers and the institution, to monitor the interplay between lawmakers and lobbyists, and enable Congress to better police itself.

Update: The New  York Times endorses Sunlight's Agenda.