On Bailout Transparency


Congress took a real step today toward legislative transparency, proactively posting the proposed bailout legislation in public, online, in advance of floorconsideration.

To give citizens a chance to fully digest and comment on the proposed legislation, we’ve posted the text of the legislation to PublicMarkup.org for public review.

On Friday Ellen blogged a request for legislative transparency, calling on Congress to release the bailout draft as early as possible:

The Sunlight Foundation is calling on Congress to publish the proposed bailout legislation as soon as possible, to give constituents and lawmakers themselves as much time as possible to examine the specifics of the proposal before it’s voted on.  We will post the draft legislation to PublicMarkup.org as soon as possible, to give citizens a chance to weigh in on the proposal’s specifics.

Any lack of transparency in consideration of this legislation would be especially ironic since lawmakers have blamed the current crisis on financial malfeasance that was hidden from public view.

Before the bailout proposal is considered by lawmakers, it must undergo an even more important test: evaluation and assessment by the public.

Today, Congress responded, and Speaker Pelosi and the House Financial Services Committee posted the bill they’ve designated as the final version.

From remarks Speaker Pelosi delivered at a press conference today:

Before I yield to Senator Reid, I just want to tell everyone that I am now informed that at this moment, you can find the plan on financialservices.house.gov, and then if not there, on speaker.gov. It’s there for all Americans to see, for our Members to read so they can make the important decision they have to make tomorrow in the House.

I also want to say that later when this bill passes and is implemented, all of the transactions related to this legislation will be on the Internet within 48 hours and that represents change. That transparency, that oversight, will be very important to the health of our economy.

In the midst of rare political urgency, as congressional leaders are pushed well beyond their comfort zones, facing the Bush Administration, unclear political consequences, a skeptical public, and posturing from the presidential candidates, Pelosi chose to assert the role of an empowered public.

Ellen identified two shortfalls in transparency; one real, helping cause the finance situation, and one potential, as Congress responds with legislation.  Speaker Pelosi’s statement addresses both.

First, on finance data, Pelosi says “all of the transactions related to this legislation will be on the Internet within 48 hours…”  While I don’t know finance well enough to speak to the details of publishing such data, I can say that this is the same sort of transaction tracking transparency that has made FedSpending.org (and USASpending.gov ) immensely successful — the same transparency that the individual US states are experimenting with (as Grover Norquist recently noted on The Next Right ).

On the second point, Speaker Pelosi points the public to the two sites where the legislation had just been posted.  Now, putting legislation online is nothing new.  THOMAS has been around since the mid 1990s.  Referencing online access to legislation in the midst of intense negotiations, whipping, and public pressure, however, is.

The expectations here, of course, are much higher than with most legislation.  The dollar amounts are enormous, the legislative process has slipped into urgency-mode, and rank-and-file lawmakers are scrambling to establish a position.

Regardless of the incentives facing congressional leadership, and regardless of the substance of the bill, this episode shows one thing very clearly: the bar for public disclosure has been raised.

Ellen, in her post, also points out the distinction between public dialog and “compromises and deal making — the real stuff of urgent policy-making.”  If public dialog is going to remain separated, to some degree, from “the real stuff of urgent policy-making,” as it is sure to in a legislature controlled by centralized party leaders, then the role of the informed public needs to be clearly staked out, asserted, and defended.

Even if many Americans dislike this legislation, and even if much of the legislation was created in informal pre-legislative meetings, public scrutiny and input has been welcomed into that process.

The legislative process, just like finance regulation, depends on public scrutiny for stability and legitimacy.  It’s good to see Congress recognize both.