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October 16, 2009

Transparent Politics

Joe Charlebois

According to Real Clear Politics – a summary of five leading polls – the Congress enjoyed their highest approval ratings in years – in March of this year. The highpoint for the two legislative bodies was on March 12th with a rating of 37%.


The House of Representatives and the Senate held somewhat steady for the next three months until the healthcare debate came into full bloom.  Starting with the July 4th weekend, the ratings of Congress have continued to decline to the point that only 25% of poll respondents look favorably upon the country’s premier legislative bodies. In fact, 66.2% disapprove of the legislators in the same polling data.


The quickest route for Congress to restore the faith of the American populace in their elected officials is to bring real transparency to the legislative process.


The presidential campaign of Barack Obama promised unprecedented transparency. What has become obvious over the past nine months is this campaign promise is simply lip service. Bills have been rammed through the House and Senate with little notice as to what has actually been contained in them.


This is not a new phenomenon. Whenever a party has enjoyed the majority in the House, Senate and White House, bills have been passed with little scrutiny. The fact that the most important bill affecting our future generations – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – wasn’t read in its entirety by any member of Congress or the president prior to passage is wildly reckless.


This summer, with the stimulus bill passed and a great number of constituents angry about the way it was passed, legislators were quick to hear from everyday people regarding the House version of the healthcare bill.


These same people, when offered the chance, did read H.R 3200 – America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. They were able to access it on-line; made it a point to become well informed regarding the issue and then formed questions based on what was written and left unwritten in H.R. 3200.


H.R. 3200 was introduced on July 14th and has been an anchor on the Congress ever since.


Since the summer recess, committees that have had similar proposals to put forth have been very wary of releasing any information to the public. In most committees, the minority Republican Party members have been excluded from input and discussion with some never seeing the proposed legislation until mark up.


The majority realizes that they can’t afford to educate the public about the bills they proffer because an informed public is powerful.


The advent of the Internet, twitter and other networking tools have allowed for the dissemination of information at an extremely rapid pace. Never will the American people be shut out of the political process again.


Prior to the Internet, good citizens on both sides of the political aisle have attempted to put an end to corruption and back room deals with the introduction of “sunshine laws.” These laws exist in many localities as a natural response to open up government to what had previously been years of good ole boys back room chicanery – where deals were made and the public paid.


Now with wide open communication from the Internet, the legislative bodies nationwide should be required to give the public access to bills prior to their arrival on the executive’s desk.


When an outraged public demanded that Congress read the bills prior to voting, the response was anything but kind.


Representative John Conyers (D., MI) in fact was quoted last July on this very subject.


“I love these members, they get up and say, ‘Read the bill!' What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”


Mr. Conyers is not alone; he was just letting the American electorate know exactly what happens in the storied halls of Congress. This has been a continual theme for decades.


The progressive movement that was reborn in the fall of 2008 has an agenda, an agenda that is not well received by the average American citizen. Therefore, the progressive needs to hide the true intentions of legislation behind thousands of pages of legal language and package it as something entirely different.


This is why we need to hold the current administration to their promise of true transparency. Every bill should be available to the public with a window of time that correlates with the size of the legislation.


Currently there is a discharge petition before Congress, Discharge No. 0006, which is signed by members of both the Republican and Democrat parties. Currently 182 members of the House have signed on. The petition would require that legislation and conference reports be available on line 72 hours before consideration by the House. Why all 435 members haven’t signed this petition is unconscionable.


We want to be involved in the process. For years critics have decried the American electorate as apathetic. The people have no idea what is happening on Capitol Hill. They have been left out of the process.


Bringing the “Hill” back to their district can be done by congressmen with open doors, Internet communication, and responding to town hall meetings. These measures of a ‘servant’ will bring the level of interest and trust back to the people.


The first step in gaining that trust is the release of all pending legislation over the Internet for public review and commentary. We need to hold our official accountable; that is our job. Approving Discharge Petition No. 006 is a very good first step.    


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