The Secret House of Congress

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In a reiteration of just about everything we cover here at Sunlight, Congressional Quarterly released a terrific article examining the many ways in which Congress is not transparent and open. If you read the blog here, or are familiar with Sunlight’s work, these problems will be very familiar:

  • Bills are often dropped hours before a vote. With no time to read the bills, large programs get voted on with little review from lawmakers and no review from the public. In one egregious case, lawmakers went scurrying for information on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act amendments, legalizing domestic spying programs, as the final version of the bill was not available when the vote was held.
  • Some committees are secret, some are open. Sometimes a bill can travel through multiple committees with varying degrees of transparency.
  • Conference committees are supposed to be open, but openness is often circumvented or multiple conferences are held, some open, some not.
  • Congressional Research Service reports, the information pipeline for most congressional offices, are not widely, publicly available.
  • There is a large amount of over-classification of legislative activities related to defense and intelligence.

And so it goes. Congress still has leaps and bounds to make towards true transparency. Over the past two years, there have been some encouraging developments including the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, the rewriting of franking restrictions for lawmaker web use, and the voluntary transparency of some individual lawmakers.

One thing that does stand out in this article that needs to be challenged is the suggestion that transparency could cause greater disapproval of Congress:

Lawmakers in the 1970s reasoned that more openness could benefit not just voters, but Congress itself. That isn’t necessarily true, said Princeton’s Zelizer, thanks to 19th Century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s saying that the two things no one should want to see being made are sausage and legislation.

“It might not result in better ratings for Congress,” the professor said. “They thought, ‘If you make it more open, people will like it more.’ That actually didn’t happen.”

Zelizer, one of my favorite congressional experts, isn’t wrong here, but his lessons don’t necessarily apply to transparency as conceived of in the Internet-powered 21st century. While the reformers of the ’60s and ’70s did believe that openness would build trust with the public, they did not build interactivity and connectivity into that push for openness. Transparency, different from openness, proposes that information should not just be available and accessible, but that the public should be able to freely interact with both the information and all actors involved, including lawmakers, staffers, and other members of the general public. Unlike simply making information available, transparency would go a long way to help repair the image of Congress by actually connecting and involving citizens.

To see what this transparency could look like read my colleague Greg Elin’s excellent review of the interactivity at change.gov, the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition web site.

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  • Transparency is the future of governance – and indeed it must be, if we are to remain a truly free citizenry.