Our friends at Change Congress have asked their members and supporters to take a survey to help them decide what they should be focused on for the coming year. And a number of questions they asked dealt with government transparency: Are earmarks fundamentally wrong or just need to be more open and transparent to the public? What’s one thing that would create a more open and transparent government? And finally, should lobbyists have a role in government? All good questions.
Japhet Els, Change Congress’ political director, lists some of the responses they have received. Regarding earmarks:, “I believe that if earmarks are going to exist, they ought to be transparent.” Another, “Nothing is 100% wrong or right. Earmarks have their use and full and timely transparency should check abuses.” We agree with these sentiments. That’s why we worked with our friends at Taxpayers for Common Sense to create Earmark Watch, where we’ve placed over 3,000 earmarks online, and ask citizens to research them.
Regarding reforms to foster transparency, one respondent wrote, “All info must be available on the web within a short time.” That’s a great idea. Since Sunlight’s founding in the spring of 2006, this is what we’ve been doing. We have assembled and funded an array of web-based databases and tools including OpenCongress.org, Congresspedia.org, FedSpending.org, OpenSecrets.org, Public Markup and others. These sites make millions of bits of information available online about the members of Congress, their staff, legislation, federal spending and lobbyists.
Regarding transparency, another person wrote, “I would suggest a daily e-mail to all constituents listing the complete activity of an elected official the day before.” Again, we agree. That’s why we built Punch Clock Campaign, where we’ve asked all candidates for congressional office – challengers and incumbents – to promise, if elected, to post their daily schedules on the Internet. Lawmakers who agree to share their schedules, including who they’ve met with and why, show that they are responsive, open, transparent and above all accountable, leading to greater public trust.
Regarding lobbyists: “This is a tough one. Our democracy and principle of freedom of speech pretty much demands that we not eliminate lobbying altogether. At the same time, it badly needs reform. Don’t have a clue how to approach that reform.” Here’s an idea, total transparency, where every lobbyist visiting a member of Congress or the executive branch to influence government policy or vote should be required to register online about the meeting with all sorts of relevant details about the meeting. The listing should include the name of the lobbyist, who he or she represents, the amount the client pays the lobbyist, the meeting’s purpose, a listing of specific policy or bills discussed, what the lobbyist is asking the official to do, and a list of campaign contributions made by the lobbyists and the client. The transparency provided would go along way to prevent lobbying abuses.