There’s no sunlight in the shadows

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

Are we living in the world of Alice in Wonderland? That’s the first thought I had last night reading Jason Grumet’s piece on why transparency is ruining government. It’s a piece, I realized by the end, that does not see the world as it is.

The summary of the argument is thus: “Oh, woe is us. No one in Congress can meet in private any more to deliberate, debate and compromise so we can get something done. The ‘new’ demand for transparency is the cause of increased partisanship, stalemate and just about everything else that’s wrong with government. The ‘radical transparency’ that we now operate under is bad so we need to go back to the ‘good ole days’ when a bunch of old white guys sat around in dark rooms, smoking cigars and cutting the deals.”

Wait. Just. A. Minute.

The idea that all meetings in Congress or the executive branch are open and accessible to the public, the assertion that senators and representatives can’t operate behind closed doors is simply laughable. Congress still exempts itself from the Freedom of Information Act, doesn’t operate under open meetings laws and doesn’t even have the same standards for archiving material that the executive branch does.

The few changes in rules enacted in recent years that provide some additional openness could hardly be deemed radical, and did little to change how Washington operates.

No one has called for the kind of “dark side to sunlight” Grumet describes. At Sunlight, we actually agree on his main point: Deliberation in front of the cameras doesn’t always produce the best public policy. We know the delicate nature of finding consensus, but we also believe that transparency is vital to hold government accountable for what it does in our name.

Sunlight and our colleagues in the transparency community have championed real-time, online access to information about the actions of those who represent us in government and the private interests seeking to influence those actions. Because such information allows citizens to hold their elected officials accountable, we would like them to have it as soon as possible. We also believe that all public data should be publicly accessible, which today means online in digital formats.

Because we take seriously the people’s role in our democracy, we pushed the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a rule requiring all non-emergency legislation to be posted online at least three calendar days before deliberation. Think of this as a “safety valve,” giving citizens a final opportunity to examine the changes to legislation, for lawmakers to look at the whole package and for everyone to raise questions and concerns about the bill while it can still have an impact. Lawmakers can and do craft those measures behind closed doors. But the “72-hour rule” gives the public a chance to learn about bills before they are voted on, when they can still have an impact. This is a practical way to balance the smoke-filled rooms that thrill Grumet with meaningful public engagement and participation.

Fostering transparency and accountability in government is also why we think it’s time the Senate finally enter the Internet age and stop hiding their campaign donors by filing campaign finance reports on paper. It’s why we advocate the passage of smart legislation like the Real Time Transparency Act, a bipartisan bill that would require 48-hour disclosure of campaign contributions of $1,000 or more to candidates, committees and parties. Citizens could learn in days — rather than months — which special interests are seeking access to and influence over lawmakers by donating to their campaigns. These reforms will help all of us better understand the interests that can sway officials’ votes on important policy matters that affect us all.

Similarly, we’ve called for better, less vague disclosure of potential conflicts of interest by knowing more about the stock holdings and other assets owned by members of Congress. Having such information has helped journalists monitor financial interests of members of Congress to ensure there are no ethics breaches. And as the teeth have been ripped from the STOCK Act, it’s more important than ever to improve the transparency of political intelligence firms.

Likewise, we advocate for modernizing lobbying disclosure to let the public know which lawmakers that lobbyists contact and what topics discussed. Current law only requires lobbyists to list the chamber of Congress they’re approaching, not the name of members, staffers or committees. It’s one thing to know the lobbyist met with a member of the Senate to discuss the federal budget, it’s quite more illuminating to know which particular lobbyists met with specific lawmakers and staff to discuss funding for this weapons system or that road project. Having that kind of information could actually help promote better deliberative discourse: others with an interest in the legislation could give their positions to the member of Congress, providing a fuller range of information and options.

Do these reforms solve everything? No, but transparency can shine a light on what’s not working as well as what does. It allows people to better understand how government functions so they can participate in the dialogue that is our democracy. It lets us learn of ineffective programs and push for their reform or repeal. It can also enable citizens and their representatives to learn of and prevent bad policies from being enacted. It forces those elected to represent us to justify the decisions they make in public. Only by doing that can they build confidence that they have made decisions in the public interest and not on behalf of special interests.  Finally, transparency allows citizens to identify the authors of flawed or failed policies as well as successful ones, and hold them accountable (or reward them) at the ballot box.

The person who said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” wasn’t some Watergate baby. It was the towering legal scholar Louis Brandeis, who died in 1941. As it turns out, transparency is hard-wired into the American democracy.