Time for new reforms

Senator Jim Jeffords’s party switch changed the Senate’s power structure dramatically, but what hasn’t changed in Washington is the increasing erosion of the public’s right to know and the diminishing ability of citizens to have an impact on Congressional actions.

In the reform atmosphere prevailing in the aftermath of the Watergate scandals, Congress adopted a number of rules and procedural changes in the 1970s designed to make the decision-making process of the Legislative Branch more open and accessible to citizens. Today, many of those reforms continue to be paid lip service, but are largely ignored as Congress increasingly returns to its old closed-door ways of doing business.

Conference Committees, where differences between the House and Senate versions of legislation are reconciled, are fertile territory for back-room secret maneuvering and deal-making. Rules of both the House and Senate call for conference meetings and votes to be open to the public, but increasingly final House-Senate conference decisions are put together in secret without formal meetings where the public and the media could observe the process.

In 1999, when the financial services legislation – involving hundreds of billions of dollars for insurance companies, banks and securities firms – was at a critical point, Senator Phil Gramm adjourned a public session of the House-Senate conference and took a select group of conferees and Clinton Administration officials into a small office to deal with the final critical details of the legislation. When a handful of representatives of consumer and community groups quietly followed the conferees into the office, they were summarily ordered out so that the negotiations could be carried out in secret.

When the President’s big tax bill was in conference, the negotiations were so secret that some duly appointed conferees, who differed with the legislation, said they were not even informed of the time and place of the meetings where the legislative package was put together. So if conferees – the legislators, themselves – can be shut out, what can the public expect?

Both the House and Senate need to adopt binding rules that would prohibit the consideration of any legislation coming out of a conference committee that did not adhere strictly to the requirement for open deliberations.

Bills, particularly 400 and 500-page omnibus measures, that come up in the last days of a Congressional sessionöwhen there is little time for debateöare often riddled with special-interest provisions, the authors of which frequently remain a mystery. Many times, these secret provisions and their impact are not discovered until long after Congress has departed.

Here a rule needs to be adopted that would flatly bar the consideration of any legislation on which there were no hearings and votes by the appropriate Committees. A point of order would lie against any provision that did not meet this criteria.

Often, the witnesses called to testify before Committees are carefully selected to stack the deck for or against particular pieces of legislation. Consumer and community groups which might raise embarrassing questions about the beneficiaries of special interest legislation are sometimes refused a chance to testify, creating a distorted public record that deceives the public.

Major trade associations and law firms often pack hearing rooms by paying couriers to stand in line to hold all available space for the lobbyists, particularly when major legislation is being considered. When citizens arrive for the hearings, they are told that no seats are left.

This “buying” of seats in public buildings demeans the Congress. The leadership of the Senate and House should take action to end the practice.

Committee reports which accompany bills sent to the floor usually list the witnesses who have appeared before the Committee. Rules should be adopted that require the Committee report to also contain a list of witnesses who have formally requested an opportunity to testify, but have been refused by the Committee. This would give the public some inkling of how the witness list was stacked. Such a disclosure would not only raise important questions when the legislation reaches the floor, but would serve to discourage the arbitrary rejection of witnesses.

Hearings on Senate confirmations of Presidential nominations of officials for key federal offices are becoming insider games in the Senate. Some Committees have adopted procedures which limit testimony to that of Members of Congress and the nominee, excluding public witnesses. Some allow submission of written statements or questions, but not live testimony from public witnesses.

This means that many times representatives of citizen organizations are left without an adequate opportunity to present views on the qualifications and positions of nominees who will wield tremendous influence over wide sectors of the federal government including offices involving health, safety, the environment, energy, civil rights and consumer protections and rights. Rules should be adopted which would require Senate Committees to demonstrate that they have sought opinions and testimony from the public.

In a short-sighted bit of economy during the 1980s, the Congress adopted rules which sharply limited the number of copies of hearing records which would be available for distribution to the public. These records are extremely valuable for citizens who want to track how legislation moves through the Committees and how individual Members of Congress perform on legislation which affect their daily lives. Congress needs to significantly increase the number of copies of Committee hearings available and make certain that ample supplies reach libraries and schools.

Every Member of Congress should be required to post their voting records – both on the floor and in Committees – on the Internet in a form that would allow citizens to easily research votes in a database indexed by bill name, bill subject, bill title and member name. The media does a pitifully poor job of publishing voting records. Major newspapers devote a significant number of their pages to long columns of stock prices, baseball box scores, and minute statistics on horse racing, but do not provide Congressional voting records except on the most major pieces of legislation.

Senator Jeffords’s party switch was described by some commentators as a “political earthquake.” But what would really shake the Washington establishment – and both political parties – would be some new reforms (and enforcement of old reforms) that would open up the Congress to real scrutiny by citizens. Now is the moment to put some bi-partisan muscle behind this effort.

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