Sunday, March 23, 2014

Proposed Legislation will Shine More Light on Lobbying, Self-Dealing in Congress

Last week, US Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced the Transparency in Government Act of 2014, a bill "to amend the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the Rules of the House of Representatives, the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to improve access to information in the legislative and executive branches of the Government, and for other purposes." I am always worried about those other purposes, because funny things tend to get slipped into law this way, but the bill is interesting.

Government Executive Oversight calls it "a grab-bag transparency bill" that would "use technology to boost public oversight of program spending, standardize agency reporting on use of the Freedom of Information Act, shed greater light on lobbying and add new requirements for judges to disclose financial investments," as ell as "toughen online disclosure requirements for lawmakers’ personal finances, office expenses, gift reports and foreign travel." All that sounds like it is worth doing.

I especially like the idea of putting completed FOIA requests online, but would like to see the law go even further: if it's FOIAble it ought to be automatically disclosed and available to the public, not have to wait for individuals to file applications. I realize that this presents administrative costs but FOIA is a constructed barrier that unnecessarily imposes costs on individuals to release information that is of public benefit. If a government is producing thousands of pages of ultimately public documents I don't see why the individual must be forced to compel publicity in the vast majority of cases; the opposite should be true.

The other main part of the bill is its attempt to make public officials more honest about their backroom dealings, including politicking and rule changing.

Finally it's about time for another attempt to stop Congress from inside trading after they "quietly" undid the 2012 Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act which was meant to curb this behavior. Congress, it seems, was worried that transparency would expose members to identity theft. This is something that Congress worries about a lot when it comes to themselves but seems incapable of determining how to stop when it comes to those not in Congress.

It is nice to see at least one Congress person push for transparency and accountability in Congress, but given past experience there is unfortunately all too much room for doubt that any reforms will stick even if they pass. I always hope to be proven wrong in this skeptical view.

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