July 24, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Watchdogs Say Transparency Efforts Fall Short

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern said Republicans haven’t kept their promises on making the House more transparent.

Thanks to a website launched in January, the public for the first time has a centralized location to track bills on the House floor. It’s the latest step Congressional leaders have taken to open up the legislative process.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the site a “victory for open government.” Leading government watchdog groups say it isn’t nearly enough and fear lawmakers might actually be going in the opposite direction when it comes to transparency.

Exhibit A for those groups: the series of behind-closed-doors meetings held last year by the much-hyped Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

“Much of what the super committee was about was a fight between leadership versus the committees,” said Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation. “Congress as a policymaking body is becoming weaker and weaker.”

The super committee promoted this notion, which some say is part of a larger trend.

Many Capitol Hill offices have routine firewalls between press and senior aides, some markups are held behind closed doors and major bills are regularly dropped from leadership onto rank-and-file lawmakers with little notice — the 2010 health care overhaul being a notorious recent example.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for instance, doesn’t allow his staff, other than spokesman Harry Gural, to talk to the press.

“The fact is, if it’s something about policy, Congressman Frank is the best interview on the Hill,” Gural said. “There’s really no reason to be tying up the staff.”

The media’s acceptance of email statements instead of interviews has contributed to inaccessibility by some Hill offices, said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation.

“Increasingly, I think Members of Congress are able to control precisely what was said and not be dinged by the reporter either in the story itself or harming an ongoing relationship,” Fitch said.

But beyond being an inconvenience for reporters, watchdog groups say, secrecy and its first cousin, inaccessibility, are increasingly having an effect on legislative outcomes.

“When they used to do things behind closed doors, it was not so consequential. Now we’re looking at much more important, much bigger bills, bigger spending items, big policy changes,” said Leslie Paige of Citizens Against Government Waste. “What used to be a little bit of horse-trading behind the scenes during appropriations has become much more of a pattern. And the super committee followed that trend.”

Like the CAGW, the Project on Government Oversight frequently calls on Congressional leaders to be more transparent. “In a way, it’s not surprising that process failed, but also in a way, it’s a bit deserved, and we are, if anything, pleased that won’t be held up as a model as we conduct business in Washington,” said Angela Canterbury, POGO’s director of public policy.

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