Sen. Charles Grassley is diving into the Jonathan Gruber scandal by asking the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to “disclose federal contracts of individuals invited to testify before Congress on healthcare reform.” I understand the political motivation behind this, but we could actually take this issue seriously. This proposal could, and should, go much further. So here’s a thought experiment and a proposal:
With some serious caveats, all witnesses before congressional committees should be required to disclose contracts, grants and subsidies, both federal and state, that they or their business receive along with any connection, through business or finance, that they have with any sitting member of the committee. Witnesses should also have to disclose whether they are a registered lobbyist and what contributions they have made to committee members. These disclosures should be made in a simple form and then disclosed on the overseeing committee’s Web site prior to the committee hearing.
Grassley’s concern comes from the case of Jonathan Gruber, a well-respected MIT professor and voice on health care reform, who was revealed to have been given a nearly $400,000 from HHS to consult on the President’s health care proposal. This, all the while, acting as a source to many journalists, appearing on television, writing in newspapers and having his research heavily cited in support of the Senate/White House health care bill. Gruber also appeared before the Senate Finance Committee on May 12, 2009 as a witness.
Gruber obviously isn’t the only one who is guilty of this kind of non-disclosure. There are likely numerous cases of executives, employees, lobbyists and experts paraded before congressional committees with some kind of undisclosed conflict of interest or connection.
In one case that went before the Ethics Committee, only to be rejected, Rep. Sam Graves invited his wife’s business associate to testify before a congressional hearing. While Graves ran this invitation by the Ethics Committee beforehand and the Ethics Committee dismissed the charges, this association and potential conflict of interest was not disclosed to the public.
It is likely that some committees already require witnesses to fill out similar forms to the ones I am proposing. These are, however, not made available to the public. Sunlight supports the online posting of all documents submitted to committees as they relate to hearings.
Now, as to the caveats for any policy resembling the one I just described. First, there would obviously be certain whistleblower protections. Second, if a conflict undermined national security, in nearly all cases, this could remain undisclosed. Third, all personal identify information — address, etc… — would not be made publicly available.
Please tell me in the comments how this could be better or rip me apart for proposing this policy.