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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.

The two groups say they would like to see the new House website, docs.house.gov, include databases listing earmarks.

The CAGW, which disputes Congress’ assertion that it has stopped earmarking, intends to publish its annual pamphlet this spring that would list spending items that it deems to be earmarks.

“We hear news of an earmark moratorium, and what we find out, from our definition, that the transparency around earmarks has regressed,” Paige said, explaining that lawmakers no longer have to disclose whether they requested funding for a parochial project.

These groups are also calling on lawmakers to provide more transcripts and coverage for many of their closed-door meetings, including markups, conference committees and ad hoc panels such as the super committee.

Empowering Democracy

The House Administration Committee has scheduled a conference for Thursday aimed at examining ways Congress can provide more legislative data to the public.

Scholars, journalists, watchdog groups and stakeholders are invited. Nearly every expert, so far, agrees that unraveling the legislative minutiae in ways that make sense to the public is crucial to empower democracy.

“There are very ordinary people that Washington regards as unsophisticated, but they’re incredibly sophisticated in other realms of life,” said Jim Harper at the Cato Institute. “We’re making them unsophisticated by withholding data they could use.”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a co-founder of the Transparency Caucus, said he intends to advance legislation this year that would make publicly available every report that federal agencies submit to Congress.

“Secrecy breeds distrust, but by opening up our inner workings to the American people, we allow the people who elected us to judge our actions and policies for themselves,” Quigley said.

The measure is intended to ensure that any report required by law to be issued to Congress and releasable under the Freedom of Information Act would be posted on a Government Printing Office website. Congress itself is exempt from FOIA.

At the opening of the 112th Congress, Boehner and his leadership team promised a more open House, with more debate and a better flow of information to Members and the public.

Besides the legislative tracking website, leaders have taken other steps to be more transparent with constituents. The House Rules Committee is broadcasting its hearings for the first time. Last December, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a real-time public online markup of anti-piracy legislation. In the Senate, an Armed Services subcommittee held an open markup to consider its portion of the annual defense policy bill, something it hadn’t done in more than a decade.

“We are dedicated to making the activities of this Congress transparent, accessible and useful for people around the country,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said earlier this month.

Democrats were skeptical a year ago — and remain so.

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