The Senate Should Change its Rules for Easy Transparency Fixes

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At the beginning of each new Congress, both the House and the Senate have the opportunity to update their respective rules. We transparency wonks at Sunlight dusted off the old Rules and found ways to modernize them to better ensure real time public access to what’s going on in Congress. The majority of changes we recommended for House Rules a few weeks ago also apply to the Senate. A few of the most important are highlighted below.

First and foremost, Senate Republicans should stop blocking a Rules change that would allow Senate candidates to file their campaign finance disclosure reports electronically. There is no legitimate reason to continue to delay public access and review to who is giving what to Senate candidates. This Rules change is one that happens to belong to the Senate alone. House candidates have been filing electronically for years.

After the election, too, greater transparency could help ferret out potential conflicts of interest or unethical behavior. Right now, most ethics-related disclosures are still available only on paper, and only if an individual physically visits an office on Capitol Hill. All congressional ethics documents that are publicly available should also be made available online. This includes personal financial disclosures, travel reports and filings regarding negotiations for future employment.

Also missing from public view are the “Dear Colleague” letters Senators write to one another. Often they are used to urge another Senator to cosponsor legislation or attend a briefing. Constituents should know what issues and events their Senators think are important enough to merit a letter to their fellow Members. Dear Colleague letters should be put on a centralized publicly available database for all to see.

Other changes we’d like to see would open up the work of Senate Committees. All committee votes should be posted online in XML. Information about hearings, including schedules and information about witnesses should be posted online as far in advance of a hearing as possible. Committee reports should be available online and all hearing rooms should be wired for videotaping/live streaming so that all committees can broadcast and archive all open proceedings.

These should not be controversial or difficult changes. As it looks to update its Rules, the Senate should harvest this low hanging fruit so the public can benefit from a bounty of data about the way Washington works.

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