Global Warming Committee Brings Public into the Committee Room


Update: You can watch Markey ask a question from the online community here and here

More and more members of Congress are using the Web to reach out to public constituencies to bring them into the processes in Congress. We saw this back in August when Sen. Dick Durbin went to the blog OpenLeft to discuss crafting a national broadband bill with members of the public. Yesterday, Rep. Ed Markey, the chairman of the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence, posted a diary on the blog Daily Kos soliciting questions and concerns from the community to be used in a committee hearing on the California wild fires today.

By adding a public element to the hearing the committee was able to create buzz in the environmental community and further open committee operations, which are the backbone of legislative activity, to the public. This will hopefully become a more regular activity among committee chairs and other members as they seek to use the Web to bring thoughtful and intelligent members of the general public in to help provide information outside of the normal think tank/lobbyist channels.

While many castigate the potential of amateur ability to provide accurate and consistent information the truth is that informed communication is occurring among individuals outside of the regular channels that serve as knowledge bases for Congress. The discussion in Markey’s Daily Kos diary is a perfect example. Here are a few great questions and comments that the commenters provided to Markey.

  • “how much did letting the hills grow wild in wetter years contribute to the fires? Should CA go back to regular controlled burns? and how could they do that without violating the Clean Air Act? I’m curious about this.”
  • “What about potential fires in other areas? I live in Missouri, where there is a large amount of hardwood forest, most of which hasn’t seen a fire in a century. However, we’ve had some very different conditions lately, including high heat along with drought for a good part of the summer. Do the experts think that climate change may bring wildfires into areas where people have their homes nestled right in among the trees (as is mine) and where most people have no idea of how to prepare for this possibility?”
  • “How much influence do the big timber companies have on the Administrations Forestry policy How many meetings have Administration Officials had with big timber companies and what was discussed. Congressman, here is a link to a Global Warming and Wildfire study: STUDY: Global Warming and Wildfires Keep up the good work. We could use another 100 of you in Congress.”
  • “Since a great deal of these fires occurred on federal owned lands, it would be instructive to learn if the federal agencies charged with managing those lands had performed their duties adequately or if they were adequately funded to do so."
  • “We should recognize that wildfires are part of the natural system, that there are many ways that humans affect that system (fire fighting practices, land management, building codes, sprawl, arson, etc), and that Global Warming is a general (contextual) contributor to worsening wildfire. (All things being equal, Global Warming makes the wild fire situation worse, but there are many things that we can do about wildfires even in the face of Global Warming.) Within this context, are there ways that we can change our forest management and fire fighting practices that would lead to a healthier wild fire situation (less likely to cause major crises like last week’s) while also improving cutting America’s carbon footprint? And, if there are such practices, are they appropriate not just for the United States, but for other nations as well?”

I’d suggest visiting the comments section of this diary to view the whole discussion that took place.

Clearly these responses demonstrate that online constituencies have a high-level of knowledge that can contribute to the work of members and committees. Despite protestations of “direct democracy” and the “cult of the amateur” there is a place in the 21st century governing process for direct public involvement beyond grassroots engagement and voting (not that those are things you shouldn’t be doing).

We’ve seen online groups whip votes in the Senate on the Restore Habeas Corpus Act and telecom immunity. The Porkbusters coalition and the Sunlight Foundation have led separate highly publicized campaigns to out secret holders through distributed research and reporting. The NRCC is currently holding contests to allow the public to build their message for 2008. And now we are beginning to see a format for the public working with their members by providing them information that currently is only funneled to Congress through the usual suspects, lobbyists, think tanks, and party committees.

The Sunlight Foundation talked to the New Media staff of the committee about beginning this process. We are really excited to see members and their staffs take innovative steps into a new era of public involvement in the democratic process.