With 67 new representatives and 12 new senators just sworn in, it’s likely that many members of the 113th Congress are still learning the way to their offices. As they get settled, here are 5 recommendations that they (and their colleagues) could implement right now to be more transparent.
1. Create an Online Guest Book
Starting the day they they were sworn in, lobbyists, well-wishers, and constituents have streamed into member offices. While visitors to the White House are listed online, the same isn’t true for visitors to congressional offices. At their front doors, representatives should set up an electronic guest book where visitors attending policy-related meetings are encouraged to type in their names, briefly summarize why they’re visiting, and say whether they’re a federally registered lobbyist. That information should be posted on the member’s website.
In addition, members should post online their just completed daily schedule of official activities, as maintained by their scheduler, at the end of each day. It will help people better understand what they do on a daily basis.
2. Who’s Who in the Office
Most meetings that take place in a congressional office are with staff, not the representative. Each staffer is the member’s point person for a particular topic. All offices should post online a list of staff working in the office and the issue areas they handle. (Some already do this.) This info is already available from private companies for a fee, but it should be available for everyone.
3. Say Where They Stand
Representatives receive a crushing amount of letters and email from constituents. In response, elected officials rely on form letters to share their (often nuanced) policy views on important issues. Instead of engaging in a massive paper chase, there’s a better approach.
In Germany, the non-profit Parliament Watch has developed a model where responses from members of parliament are posted online. While protecting the privacy of constituents, members of congress should do likewise. All letters to constituents regarding policy should be posted online in a searchable, easy-to-find location, and constituents should be encouraged to check the webpage first. If done properly, there’s a great chance that constituents will share the responses on social media, helping to spread the word.
4. Publish Official Reports and Correspondence
Members of congress send and receive official letters and reports from agencies all the time. It’s part of how they engage in government oversight. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to see when a representative is working on our behalf (such as when a letter is sent to an agency) or is gathering information to help make an informed decision (like that contained in a CRS report).
Most of the time, these reports are of public interest and do not contain confidential material. They should be published online as a matter of course, with limited, appropriate exceptions. Priority should be given to reports and letters from agencies on issues of public interest, online publication of CRS Reports, and “Dear Colleague” letters.
5. Ask for Comments on Legislation
When most people think of congress, they think of legislation. Representatives introduce legislation all the time, but the feedback process is pretty limited. Some representatives have been experimenting with feedback mechanisms. Rep. Issa launched the Madison Project, for example, so the public can comment (and respond to other comments) on legislation. Some members (like Zoe Lofgren) have used Reddit to gather feedback. There’s no best way to do this, but representatives that introduce legislation should provide an easy way to receive feedback and allow the public to see and comment upon those comments.
There’s a lot of things members of congress could do to be more transparent. Many of them are as simple as having a good up-to-date website. The best thing about these five suggestions is that any member of congress can do them on his or her own.
Of course, there’s room for members to work together, too. We have recommendations for how the House or Senate rules should be updated, how oversight can be improved, the importance of better access to legislative data, what kinds of legislation should be introduced, and even what information committees should have on their websites.