FYI - Roll Call op-ed in favor of transparency

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Gabriela Schneider

May 17, 2007, 11:22:26 AM5/17/07
The editorial praised here is the one that endorsed OHP recommendations.
Disclosure and Transparency Key to Democracy
May 17, 2007
By Deanna R. Gelak,
Special to Roll Call

The May 9 Roll Call editorial, ³Open Congress,² was excellent. With all the
excitement over the ³culture of corruption² and Lobbying Disclosure Act
reforms, the implementation of purpose-driven transparency at a practical
level seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle.

Because of electronics, we are now capable of accomplishing the goal of
making the entire legislative process available to ordinary citizens for
viewing in their home offices or dens. How can we not do it now that it¹s
available? Since, as is often said, ³an informed citizenry is the bulwark of
democracy,² how can we not do everything we can to get citizens as involved
and aware as possible? This is especially true for our young citizens who
live much of their lives via the Web.

This is a timeless principle. In 1796, George Washington explained how the
strength of our system is directly connected to an informed and involved

³Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the
general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of government
gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be

Had the Internet been widely used when political disclosure requirements
were originally enacted, timely home page availability for the public
undoubtedly would have been incorporated. But as technology has advanced, we
have inadvertently slouched toward ³selective transparency² since disclosure
reports originally intended for public consumption are becoming available on
a patchwork basis to those with inside-the-Beltway connections and
professional subscription resources.

We should not underestimate the ability of ordinary citizens and, indeed,
their lobbyists to regularly use a transparent process to expose illegal and
unethical behavior and proactively create an environment that encourages
more accountability.

All public Congressional legislative meetings should be available via the
Web live and on an archived basis in time for citizens to weigh in and make
a difference. ³Glacial time² availability of hearing transcripts also
disadvantages experts who are attempting to scrutinize the substantive
details and long-term ramifications of proposals. Sure, citizens can
eventually find out how their Members of Congress voted via THOMAS, but a
more ³real time² system allows them to weigh in more effectively on the
front end of the process, when it really counts, e.g., when bills are
prioritized and before changes are considered in committee.

The recommendations addressed in your editorial make a lot of sense. Here
are a few more:

1. The Department of Justice needs to post Foreign Agents Registration Act
information more quickly and the process should be more meaningful. The last
report to Congress posted on is dated 2005. And these are
lobbyists who are trying to influence the U.S. government on behalf of
foreign governments.

DOJ should make the information readily available via the Web and should
launch a campaign to increase the public¹s understanding of the FARA
disclosure process, with public utilization of their database as one measure
of success.

2. Submission and public disclosure of lobbying reports under the Lobbying
Disclosure Act of 1995 should be effectively coordinated and harmonized
between the House and Senate, promptly posted and fully searchable.

3. The excellent Congressional Research Service Issue Briefs that are now
made available for purchase through private service providers should either
be available to the taxpaying public via the Web or they should not be
available to the subscription services that turn around and sell them at a
profit. The current selective and quasi-public availability of these
taxpayer-funded documents doesn¹t make sense. (Full disclosure: A Roll Call
subsidiary, GalleryWatch, provides CRS reports to its subscribers.)

4. Senate electronic filing is essential for the Senate campaign finance
system to get into the 21st century, and it¹s also essential if citizens are
going to have access in real time to Senate campaign finance information.
The wasteful and ineffective Senate campaign disclosure situation was
effectively detailed in Roll Call¹s Feb. 20 editorial. Reforms such as those
embodied in Sen. Dianne Feinstein¹s (D-Calif.) S. 223, and long supported by
former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner, should be
implemented immediately.

5. Congress should establish a one-stop electronic disclosure Citizen
Resource Center that simply provides links to all of the publicly available
disclosure forms in one place along with a public awareness campaign to
truly make it known and utilized by the public at large. For example, the
Government Printing Office could simply establish a Web site, with clear
links to each of the publicly available political involvement disclosure
information currently scattered around. (Borrowing from the British, I
nominate www.TheyWork as a title.)

These practical changes should not be a threat to conscientious public
servants, lobbyists or governmental service providers because:

1. A transparent process rewards conscientious lawmaking. The hard work of
many legislators frequently goes unnoticed by constituents unable to
physically attend meetings. Conscientious Members of Congress are not
threatened by common-sense input on the practical ramifications of proposals
in ³real time;² they rely on it and realize that it prevents legislative

2. Good lobbyists understand that their expertise, experience, contacts and
diligence are strengthened when the ³special interests² that they represent
are more informed and engaged.

3. The ever-increasing complexity of legislation provides an infinite number
of opportunities for service providers to adapt with advances and
value-added services for eager consumers once the government effectively
covers the basics.

Citizens have proved that they value unfiltered access to the legislative
process. That is why C-SPAN¹s ³gavel-to-gavel² coverage is not only popular,
but highly edifying to the public policy process.

Everyone wants credit for lobbying and ethics legislation, but it is
important that it does not eclipse some of the less sexy but perhaps more
practical and lasting transparency actions. The strength of our system is
directly connected to an informed and involved citizenry. There is great
power in effective transparency empowered by ³real time² democracy.

Deanna R. Gelak is president of Working for the Future and served two terms
as president of the American League of Lobbyists. She is on the faculty of

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