New Congress provides a moment for transparency change


Each new Congress begins with its own unique face. The ascendant Newt Gingrich in 1994, the first woman Speaker of the House surrounded by children in 2006 and a teary-eyed John Boehner in 2010. As we await the future for presumptive Speaker Boehner’s policies, we know that those of Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi differed greatly. That is save for one area: transparency. A new Congress, with fresh blood, offers a singular moment to advance transparency causes, whether in the legislative field or elsewhere.

Of course, the decisions on where to move on transparency has largely been influenced by the idiosyncrasies of the Speaker or the new congressional class or the prevailing winds of the time.

In January of 1995 Speaker Gingrich unveiled the first online database of legislation known as THOMAS. THOMAS was a breakthrough at the time even though it did not include anywhere close to the amount of information that it does today. Gingrich, a fan of the futurist Alvin Toffler, was incredibly interested in computers and found it important to make legislation available to the public over the new Internet technology.

The House of Representatives, under the Democratic majority prior to the 1994 election, had put a lot of work into wiring offices for Internet access and posting legislative information through the House Information Services (HIS) and the Government Printing Office (GPO). The new Republican majority, particularly Gingrich and incoming House Administration Committee chairman Bill Thomas, thought that HIS was a pet project of the Democrats and that GPO was inept. This led them to centralize control over the online legislative database in the Library of Congress, where THOMAS still lives today.

In 2006 Pelosi and the Democrats were elevated to office, in part, due to a string of corruption scandals tainting the Republicans. The Jack Abramoff scandal exposed both the casual and explicit corruption in Washington. Associational biases led to corrupt decisions as staffers accepted sports and concert tickets and wound up doing favors for lobbyists. Travel to exotic locales, for educational purposes, of course, were prized lobbyist tricks to win support from congressmen for their clients. Meals could be used as bargaining chips. And in the case of Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, earmarks were sold to defense contractors for yachts, prostitutes, antique furniture and, in one case, a house.

The Democrats moved quickly once the new Congress began. A bill was drafted that included dramatically increased transparency on lobbyists and lobbyist gifts to members of Congress, restrictions on private travel and the receipt of gifts from lobbyists and increased transparency around earmarks and other legislative activities including committee hearings and conference committees. This was a landmark bill that has made following Congress and influence much easier in the Internet age.

This phenomenon is not new either. The increase in new congressmen, largely in the Democratic Party, from 1970 to 1974, produced a series of lasting transparency policies in campaign finance, committee operations, executive branch operations and congressional activity.

So what does this mean for the Republicans in their 2010 form under a Speaker Boehner? That appears to be a big unknown at the moment. Boehner does not appear to have the zest for technology that Gingrich did, nor does the moment portend a need for action as the corruption scandals of 2006 pushed Pelosi to act. There are, however, some areas that both Boehner and Majority Leader-to-be Eric Cantor have noted that could provide some clues as to where transparency could be advanced in the House.

The Republican leadership has stated that they are going to devolve some power back to committee chairmen after a decades-long centralization of power in leadership offices. This provides a moment to codify rules and increase transparency in committee rooms.

The Sunlight Foundation released a list of rules changes for the new Congress to adopt, which includes a series of important changes to committee openness. These include posting recorded votes online in a structured format, post official transcripts, disclose financial statements filed by witnesses and post all committee documents online. (More suggestions can be found here.)

Giving the public time to read bills before they come to the floor for debate is another area that appears ripe for action. This was a hallmark criticism that Republicans made of the legislative process in the 111th Congress and they should codify a rule requiring bills be posted online for 72 hours prior to consideration.

John Boehner has consistently stated his support for transparency in the legislative process during his term as Minority Leader. As he ascends to the Speaker’s chair, many will watch to see how his criticisms of opacity translate into policies of openness.