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Weekly Basket: Opening Congressional Windows

 


Volume XVII No. 8: February 24, 2012
 

As technology advances, more and more Americans expect easy access to information. They want to look behind the curtains and see how government is working. What they're finding is sometimes the curtains are drawn, revealing previously hidden mechanisms and machinations, but in other cases they are denied access by a set of freshly closed blinds. Congress and the Administration have to continue to make the window clearer and information accessible, usable, and understandable.



Strides have been made. Most committees now webcast their hearings so taxpayers anywhere in the country can watch the "action." Even one of the most arcane, but powerful, committees -- House Rules -- has started streaming their proceedings. This committee decides who gets to offer what amendment on the floor, how a bill will be considered, even how long Congress will debate. Before, if you didn't get one of the handful of seats in the room for their late night sessions, you were shut out.

There have also been baby steps. House Republicans promised to make bills publicly available 72 hours before votes and allow a fully open amendment process. They made progress in this area, but too often fell short. More must be done so all lawmakers and the public can have input on the legislative sausage-making.

Sometimes the more things change the more they stay the same. Congress has a research arm -- the Congressional Research Service (CRS) -- that provides valuable, unbiased background information on a range of legislative issues. Even though taxpayers pay for it, this information isn't made directly available to the public, only dribbling out when a lawmaker or staffer chooses to release it. This has fueled a bizarre secondary market where companies can pay a commercial service to provide them CRS documents. Last month, the Senate passed their version of the STOCK Act, which, while largely targeting insider trading by lawmakers and staff, also went after the non-lobbyist influence and inside information industry. One easy way to help that along would be just to release all CRS documents.

In some cases things are worse. After a series of damaging reports in recent years about how lawmakers spent their office funds, including leasing expensive vehicles and taking exotic trips, Congress promised to come clean and publish the Statement of Disbursements (large tomes detailing how each lawmaker and committee spent the money allotted to them) online. These quarterly documents came in several inches-thick, difficult-to-decipher volumes. Believe it or not, it's now worse. Details about spending and trips were wiped clean in the online versions. Lawmakers must be required to detail information about how they are spending taxpayer money in their offices and committees. Similarly, lobbyists need to have explicit requirements and penalties regarding information provided in quarterly lobby disclosure forms.

Finally, in other areas it's not clear how far we've come. Both the House and Senate currently have earmark moratoriums. Hear, hear. But as we wrote abouttwo weeks ago, until Congress and the Administration hammer out transparent metrics and criteria to award funding in merit-based, competitive, or formula systems, we remain concerned that lawmakers will either end-run the systems through back door deals, or simply shift to Executive branch earmarking. For example, this year Congress provided the Corps of Engineers several pots of extra money to allocate to projects along with some vague criteria and told the Corps to detail how they prioritized the funding. What came back was a hodge-podge of projects, some moribund and previously wisely relegated to the back of the line, and a two-page document that was more platitudes and bureaucratic gobbledy-gook than metrics and priorities. It's a two-way street. The Administration has to be more transparent about how it makes its budgetary decisions across the board, because if agency black box budgeting remains the norm, Congressional earmarks will rear their ugly head again.

Congress has made progress toward giving taxpayers the 21st century transparency we deserve. But much more has to be done. Information is power, and as long as Congress hoards information, they are denying power to the people.

 
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