WASHINGTON—Among Nancy Pelosi’s first moves as Speaker of the House was to create the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, with six members from each political party and chaired by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.).
She did so, Pelosi (D-Calif.) claimed, because voters demanded “a Congress that would be ethical, transparent, unifying, and responsive to their needs and aspirations.”
But making the House more transparent—and thus more accountable to voters—got lost somewhere along the way between the November 2018 election that restored Democrats to the majority for the first time since 2010 and the official House rules adopted Jan. 4, that created the select panel.
The rules direct the committee to recommend policies on everything but improving transparency, including developing “the next generation of leaders; staff recruitment, diversity, retention, and compensation and benefits; administrative efficiencies, including purchasing, travel, outside services, and shared administrative staff; technology and innovation; and the work of the House Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards.”
Thirty House members—including Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)—testified at the committee’s first hearing on March 12.
But the word “transparency” was mentioned by only three of the 30. McCarthy, for example, reminded the committee that “part of rebuilding the confidence of the American people is more transparency in the legislative process. Even as a member of Congress, we sometimes find out what’s in a bill just hours before it comes to the floor.”
McCarthy then asked, “Can Congress institute block-chain technologies to add transparency to the lawmaking process? Just as the blockchain documents every financial transaction, can it document every legislative alteration?”
If that fails, McCarthy asked if “perhaps we can utilize the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in bill drafting, introduction, markup, scheduling, and voting. Imagine Microsoft Word’s ‘track changes’ feature, but for the U.S. Code.”
Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Franking Commission, which oversees members’ use of tax-paid postage for communications to constituents, told the committee that “we are behind the times when it comes to transparency. In an era when constituents can follow our actions online and Google our financial disclosures, campaign reports, and office spending online, they should be able to access our franked mail and communications, too.”
Davis acknowledged that much of the materials regulated by the commission are “technically available to the public,” but she pointed out that “you can only see it if you come to Washington, go to the Clerk’s office, and pay 10 cents a page to print.”
Davis also pointed out that taxpayers who view such records have to identify themselves. “I believe it is simply good government to let the public view the franked materials they’ve paid for without being asked for personal information about themselves,” she said.
Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) was the third member to mention transparency, as she encouraged the committee to consider her proposal to require the House Ethics Committee to make its reports public.
Others among the 30 testifying at the hearing recommended things like improving the design of congressional office buildings and furniture (Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn.), paying higher salaries to congressional aides (Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J.), and convening a bipartisan congressional retreat to encourage more harmony among members.
Another, Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), even proposed restoring anonymity to members who sign discharge petitions, which are a legislative tool for forcing a recalcitrant committee chairman to send a bill to the full House for a vote. House rules have required signers’ names to be made public since 1993.
Political strategists from across the ideological spectrum expressed disappointment with the committee’s early performance.
“The entire scope of the purposes of the committee is subject to potential abuse unless its work is done with great transparency,” warned Mark Fitzgibbons.
Fitzgibbons is president of corporate affairs for American Target Advertising, the political strategy and communications firm based in Manassas, Virginia, and founded by direct mail fundraising pioneer Richard Viguerie.
“And just as much as the executive branch and administrative state should be open to transparency under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, it is time to ensure Congress is subject to the same—or even greater—level of legally compelled transparency, and make FOIA apply to the first branch,” Fitzgibbons suggested.
The FOIA was approved by Congress in 1966 and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, but the representative branch has never been subject to the law.
Democratic strategist Jimmy Williams said members of Congress should be required to make their tax returns public.
“Members should have to release their tax returns anytime they’re on the public payroll. The same goes for the president and anyone confirmed by the Senate. Do that and you will see who is being bought and paid for.”