Congressional Reform: Let the Sun Shine In

Call it the upside of the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal: Everybody in Congress -- including the top leaders of both political parties -- is hustling to get on the right side of the ethics issue.

Stung also by the national reaction against wasteful spending, exemplified by “Bridge to Nowhere” earmarks, they can’t propose reforms fast enough.

But how can you tell which reforms have substance and which are mere window dressing? By how much they let the sun shine in on Capitol Hill. These five essential sunshine measures should be the foundation of true congressional ethics reform:

First, apply the federal Freedom of Information Act to Congress, just as it has to the White House and the rest of the executive branch since its passage in 1966. As it so often does, however, Congress conveniently exempted itself from the FOIA and members have since consistently resisted talk of extending the law to themselves.

When talk-radio host/blogger extraordinaire Hugh Hewitt recently asked Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, about the idea, the House Majority Leader candidate balked, saying, “FOIA is a law Congress passed for the executive branch. And because we do have, in fact, a separation of powers issue, I'm not sure that it's appropriately applied to Congress.”

Pressed by Hewitt, Boehner said he would “be open to it,” but added that he was also concerned about protecting the privacy of correspondence with constituents. That’s a legitimate concern, but the FOIA already includes nine exemptions, including categories such as national security, law enforcement, commercial secrets and privacy.

Second, post all bills before Congress (as well as accompanying bill reports) in their entirety on the Internet at least 72 hours before members vote on them. Congress routinely votes on bills few members have read because they have little time to study proposals that often run hundreds of pages and are unavailable until just before the roll is called.

A national-security waiver would be necessary, but such a provision would end the current nonsense of waiting until the adjournment rush to consider major bills. Rep. John Shadegg notes that Congress now has a three-day rule, but the Arizona Republican, who is also seeking the House Majority Leader post, says the rule is routinely waived.

“It is when we waive that rule to try to get out of town at the end, when we have seen some of the worst abuses of that,” Shadegg said. “But we don't just waive it at the end of the session, we waive it all the time.” The waiving must stop and all citizens should be able to read the same bill members see when they vote.

Third, when those bills are posted, include with every “Bridge to Nowhere” earmark the name of the member who requested it and the name of the proposed recipient. Dragging those infamous earmarks into the sunlight would go a long way toward putting influence peddlers such as Abramoff out of business.

Fourth, post the office budgets of every lawmaker on their official Web sites. Every member gets an annual appropriation to hire staff, outfit his or her office and pay for official duties such as travel and postage. Much of that information is now available but only for those willing or able to come to the Capitol and pore over hard-copy records. Posting the budget would also work nicely with reporting requirements for meetings with registered lobbyists and receipt of gifts such as paid junkets.

Finally, post every re-election campaign contribution within a week of its receipt on the member’s web site. Yes, the FEC makes such donations available online, as do private groups, but accessing the data is often cumbersome and requires a sophisticated understanding of statistics. Why not make the data easily accessible at the most logical place, the member’s web site?

It’s important to remember a point Shadegg made in the same interview with Hewitt about what Republicans promised with their Contract with America in 1994. Shadegg noted the familiar limited-government promise to reduce federal spending and taxes.

"But there was a second plank in that promise, and that was to clean up the backroom deals, to stop the ability of members to sneak language in, in the middle of the night, or to use their position of power to try to benefit themselves or their cronies,” Shadegg said. The GOP has mostly failed on this one, he added.

After 12 years, making good on that second promise ought to be the first priority.

A veteran newspaper journalist, Mark Tapscott is Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Media and Public Policy.