Last week, a New York Times editorial was spot-on in calling for “a heavy dose of Internet transparency” to shed light on the relationships between our legislators and the special interests. The Times noted that “the technology is already there, along with the public’s appetite for more disclosure about the byways of power in Congress.” In suggesting “prompt, searchable postings of basic data–from lobbyists’ itineraries and expenses to incumbents’ donor ties and legislative labors,” the Times is recognizing the value of the Internet as a technology that enables far greater sharing of information and shifts power into the hands of ordinary people.
It is far past time for Congress to enter the twenty-first century. Believe it or not, the Senate still files its campaign finance reports on paper (even though every Senator’s campaign undoubtedly uses computers–well, we’re not sure about Ted “the Internet is made of tubes” Stevens of Alaska). There’s no technical reason why lobbyist reports couldn’t be filed weekly, and online for immediate access.
There’s no technical reason why committee hearings aren’t all streaming on the web. Nor is there any technical reason that Members’ personal financial disclosure reports aren’t immediately posted on the web and updated whenever a Congressmen buys or sells property or stocks. If the SEC can require advance disclosure by directors of public companies before they buy or sell their company’s stock, surely we should expect similar disclosure by the people who are buying and selling legislation.
One new organization taking the lead in pushing these ideas that the Times mentioned is The Sunlight Foundation–a nonpartisan watchdog organization devoted to using the Internet and information technology to increase transparency and accountability in Congress. The group is urging elected officials to sign onto its “,” which calls for posting daily work schedules on the Internet, including meetings with lobbyists and all fundraising events. Rep.-elect Kirsten Gillibrand has agreed to it and Sen.-elect Jon Tester reportedly will as well.
Finally, the Times editorial cited the need for an “independent agency to prod Congress to fully investigate corruption allegations.” Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi has signaled an openness to such an agency. She announced a bipartisan task force to look into the matter and report back by late March. Of course, creating a task force to look into creating an agency is potentially an inside-the-Beltway prescription for doing nothing. Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, told the Washington Post that the task force “worries me enormously” and that “they ought to bite the bullet” and create an independent Office of Public Integrity immediately.
If the Democrats want to make good on their promise to cleanup Congress, they will do everything they can to let the sunshine in.