Sunlight Reforms for Congress

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

Sunlight Reforms for Congress


Byline: Michael Klein and Ellen Miller, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Now that a senator and several representatives were defeated by corruption issues and three-fourths of all voters in this fall's congressional elections told exit pollsters that concern over congressional corruption was a major factor motivating their votes, Congress reportedly is poised to act on an array of "reform" proposals.

The key question, of course, is whether they will enact real or cosmetic reforms. Real reforms will be those that build trust, and re-establish the relationship of trust and confidence between voters and legislators that characterizes a healthy democracy. Merely legislating about issues such as the costs of meals and sponsorship of trips is unlikely to persuade many that Congress is serious. If serious, and required by the moment, Congress will focus on reforms dramatically increasing the transparency of its activities.

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. Louis Brandeis wrote years ago: "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the best policeman." His wisdom is even more apropos today.

Congress needs to think Google. Americans today routinely use it and other Internet search engines to get up-to-the-minute quotes on airline tickets, hotel reservations, even cars and home mortgages simply by going online. Putting relevant information about money and politics online, where it can be searched and used by the press and public, will vastly increase the effective oversight of Congress. If that occurs, as surely as the night follows the day, members of Congress and their staffs will pay more heed to public sensibilities and be more circumspect about serving special interests, changing the relationship between lawmakers and their constituents.

Here are three powerful transparency reforms that Congress should enact promptly:

(1): Stop faking transparency - use the Web. Congress already has many laws and rules that reflect a policy of making public much of the information useful to police the influence of money on politics. These include reports about who makes political contributions, about who lobbies for whom, about who privately finances member and staff travel and entertainment, about who gets what federal contracts and grants, and about changes in the net worths of members of the Congress. But most of this "public" information is practically hidden, because it is filed only in Washington, typically on paper or otherwise off-line, and months after the fact. That makes the policy of disclosure a sham. There is no good reason for a citizen or reporter to have to travel to D.C. to search paper or off-line files to see information Congress has long required be publicly available. Congress should now do for all these reports what it did in October for federal contracts and grants require that they be posted on the Web, and on timely schedules. …

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