To Reform Congress, Shine A Light On It

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Saturday, January 27, 2007
Watching Congress tackle reform has been interesting and even uplifting, but in the end I find myself oddly disappointed. Our representatives on Capitol Hill may be missing an important opportunity to bring real and lasting change to an institution that sorely needs it. 

Reducing the influence of lobbyists on legislation and banning most (but not all) privately funded travel for members of Congress may help end the abuses that so repelled American voters last year. But the more I look at the problems of recent years — the lackadaisical attitude toward ethics enforcement, the legislative shortcuts, the outsized influence of special interests, the secret earmarks, the poisonous partisanship, the pernicious influence of mountains of cash on the system, the playing field tilted in favor of incumbents — the more I am persuaded that one fundamental reform addresses many of them: sunshine. 

My thinking is simple. The more exposed members of Congress feel, the less likely it is we will see the misconduct and institutional shortcomings that led to this year's reform effort. Congress belongs, in the end, to the American people, and behavior that can't stand the light of day has no place there. 

Michael Klein and Ellen Miller, who run an organization devoted to increasing the "transparency" of government, put it this way in a recent commentary: "Why focus on transparency? Because a major cause of voter mistrust is a feeling special interests are served by those who do their bidding in the belief they will not be detected. The best cure for this is increasing transparency and thus the risk of detection." 

I am not quite as devoted as they are to the belief that everything a member of Congress does should be public. Politics, after all, depends on the willingness of its practitioners to compromise for the common good in ways they might be reluctant to do if a camera were focused on them all the time. And certainly some national security matters need to be handled in private. 

Still, there is much that could be made public that has either been hidden or is so inaccessible that it might as well be. Campaign donations and lobbying expenses, for instance, should promptly be published online and made easily searchable, so that we know right away who is financing whom and to what end. Similarly, there is no legitimate reason for keeping the sponsors of earmarks or their intended beneficiaries under wraps. 

And this is an era when pretty much anything that can be caught by a camera makes it quickly onto YouTube. Shouldn't House and Senate meetings — especially floor action and committee and subcommittee hearings — be viewable online as well? I see no reason why the public shouldn't be able to look over its representatives' shoulders as they go about their legislative work. It is, after all, the public's business. 

You'll notice a theme here. New technology — especially the Web, high bandwidth, and the search revolution sparked by Google — makes possible a degree of scrutiny that would have been inconceivable even 15 years ago. 

Without making a special trip to Washington or scouring some obscure federal office for a buried report, we could know immediately which special interests fund the campaigns of specific members or devote millions of dollars to buying access (if not more) to members of Congress. 

We could know right away when a member attaches an innocuous-seeming amendment to a bill that happens to benefit a prime campaign contributor. We could watch markup and oversight sessions as they take place. We could see when legislative shortcuts are taken, and when amendments and debate on bills are curbed. We could quickly learn which members are serious and competent in looking into every nook and cranny of the federal government, and which members are merely engaged in "show time." 

We could, in other words, make it far easier to hold Congress and its members accountable for actions that affect us all. Democracy, after all, is a process, not a result; Americans need to see that process. 

This change will not be easy. Members of Congress resist making their doings more public, not because they have any nefarious purposes in mind, but because it's more comfortable and easier for them out of the public eye. So if there is to be greater transparency, it will come about largely because the American people have demanded it. 

Powerful interests certainly let members of Congress know they're watching. The American people should be able to, too. So, next time you run into your representative, put the question to him or her bluntly, "Do you, or do you not, want to let the sunshine in?" 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)