- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

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.

(2) Make lobbyist registration and reporting meaningful. The perceived intersection of money and politics is the activity of paid lobbyists. Yet the current requirements for lobbyist registration and reporting are a joke. Three changes are required:

c The registration requirements have too many exemptions. Registration should be required of everyone who engages directly in issue advocacy with members or staff.

c The reports currently require lobbyists to disclose virtually nothing useful for effective oversight. The reports for these lobbyists should be amended to require them to disclose what really matters: Which members and staff were lobbied and when? What legislative or regulatory requests were they lobbied about? What contributions did the lobbyists or their clients make or coordinate to the member or any entity associated with the member?

c Finally, lobbyist reports are now filed quarterly, far too long after the activity to be useful for oversight. They should be filed contemporaneously. Requiring contemporaneous online reporting would not be unique or inappropriate. To enhance the public’s perception of honest securities markets, the Securities and Exchange Commission has long required same day public disclosure by any major investor, corporate officer or director who buys or sells publicly traded stocks. The buying and selling of legislation which is the public’s unfortunate perception of what some lobbyists seek and obtain from Congress warrants no less. If tens of thousands of businessmen can live with contemporaneous disclosure, so can lobbyists. Understand that those who have these meetings and make or coordinate these contributions undoubtedly contemporaneously recorded that information in their ubiquitous Blackberries, Treos and computers.

(3) Stop secret, last minute, special interest legislation. Surreptitious earmarks and the late insertions of special interest provisions are the major scourge of Congress’ reputation because they invite the perception of corruption. Many present and former members bemoan how often they voted on bills with provisions they hadn’t read, when other members used the late hour and sheer weight of legislation to tuck in favors for the people who finance their campaigns, without anyone knowing who did what or why.

The solution is simple: All bills and amendments, with their sponsors identified, should be posted online at least 72 hours before the vote. Then all members, and the press and interested citizens, could read the bill and know who sponsored it before it’s too late.

These three transparency proposals are simple, inexpensive, feasible and potentially powerful. They will enhance the ability of the press and people, using the Internet, to be watchdogs. Increasing the potential for detection, they will decrease the prospect of misbehavior and hopefully improve both the performance and reputation of Congress.

Michael Klein is chairman and Ellen Miller is executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates more transparent, accountable government.

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