Transparency and openness were the topics at the fourth hearing of the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on Friday, May 10. Committee members heard experts discuss the positive and negative consequences of past efforts to increase transparency; how Congress currently fares in its efforts at promoting open government; and how Congress could reform in the future. Discussion ranged from the nuts-and-bolts of using technology to increase transparency to broader philosophical concerns about why Congress should promote openness.
“Transparency goes to the heart of democracy and our ideas about fairness. Congressional transparency means everything from empowering each Member of Congress to facilitating public participation in the political process,” said Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress.
Committee Members also linked transparency and serving constituents.
“Transparency actually promotes accountability to our constituents, and that’s a good thing,” Select Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-WA) said.
Select Committee Vice Chairman Tom Graves (R-GA) echoed him, saying, “An important part of representing our constituents is transparency.”
“Part of improving transparency also means though that our constituents receive accurate and truthful information about our work on their behalf,” Graves said.
Although transparency and openness are important for democracy, participants also acknowledged the difficulties associated with promoting these principles. Professor Frances Lee of the University of Maryland political science department said that certain practices that have been undertaken in pursuit of transparency can impair legislative deliberation since they disproportionately allow outside interest groups to influence decision makers and they incentivize Members to focus on public-facing messaging rather than negotiating with colleagues.
“Members need to be able to talk frankly with one another so that they can search for common ground, explore possible solutions, and build trust with one another,” she said.
While noting the unintended consequences of promoting transparency in deliberations, Lee encouraged the Select Committee to improve ways to inform the public about the outcomes of the legislative process, how the government uses public funds, and the like. “Transparency is an important value, one that’s essential to the democratic process,” she said, noting that, as a political scientist, legislative openness benefits her directly.
Lee was not the only person to highlight the unintended consequences that greater openness brings. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) noted how important civil rights legislation passed Congress due to closed-door negotiations. “I’m not sure that Lyndon Johnson would have been able to get the civil rights bill or the Voting Rights Act approved if the world was involved in hearing and viewing his interactions, and the deal making…that took place to get that done,” he said.
Additionally, participants highlighted the logistical challenges that transparency proposes. Members and the panelists discussed extensively how the House could make it easier to see how amendments would change the text of a law and how legislation would change the texts of statutes. The House is developing a tool to achieve that, but due to the complexity of drafting legislation, it is difficult for computers to reflect proposed changes automatically. “It gets weedy pretty quick,” Schuman noted.
Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research director. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the Legislative Branch.