A History of Congressional Transparency


Over the course of two-hundred twenty years Congress has gradually opened their inner workings to public inspection. From the opening of its doors to the organization of its papers to the disclosure of influence, transparency has been on the march for centuries in Congress. Despite the popular depiction of Congress as intractably opaque, America’s First Branch of government has pushed forward some of the most innovative transparency reforms over the course of its existence. Technological developments, political calculation, idealism, and, most of all, corruption scandals have all contributed to the continued march of transparency. The Sunlight Foundation Transparency Timeline highlights key moments in the history of transparency reform in Congress and tells the story behind the events that have led to the current level of openness on Capitol Hill.

Of course, Congress did not have to operate in such an open manner. The decision to do so was made in the first year of operation of the Federal Congress when the House of Representatives moved to permanently open its doors to the public. None of the previous governmental or organizing bodies of the American Republic provided for unregulated public viewing of their debates. The House of Representatives was a unique, radical body, a direct manifestation of the people as sovereign, and took seriously the Jeffersonian ideal that information belonged to the people. On April 9, 1789, the House opened its doors. From this decision all other changes making Congress more transparent and connected to the people flow.

Some of the highlights in the Transparency Timeline are:

  • The early connections to the Internet made by then-Committee on House Administration chairman Charlie Rose that led to widespread adoption.
  • The first requirement of lobbyist disclosure in 1876 (not made permanent) after the Credit Mobilier scandal implicated nearly a dozen members of Congress.
  • During a 1913 committee investigation into lobbying abuses, senators were forced to disclose their personal finances for the first time.
  • The Legislative Reorganizations Acts of 1946 and 1970 that began to truly open up the committee process.

Go ahead and read the Timeline. I’ll have more here on the blog looking deeper at the history behind some of these transparency reforms and their importance.