The Campaign for America's Future (CAF), CREDO, and MoveOn have launched a petition campaign to ensure that the House/Senate deliberations on financial reform be "fully transparent." The good news? The government has the ability, the resources, and the talent to make this process the breakthrough in "open government" the President has long promised. The bad news? Anything less than "full" transparency will lead to a weaker bill, less public confidence in government, and even more anti-incumbent anger.
The goals must be clear: First, a truly transparent process should reduce the ability of lobbyists and other backroom dealers to influence the proceedings. Second, it must let the American people see which elected officials are defending them and which are carrying water for Wall Street. Third, the process should give the public both the time and the tools to make an informed decision about the final bill - and then express their feelings to their representatives.
Robert Borosage of CAF (where I am a Fellow) explained the reasons for the petition to Brian Beutler of TPM: "... (W)e want the legislation put online, the differences put online, the issues they're going to talk about put online." The urgency of those comments is underscored by the fact that conference participants have collectively received nearly $58 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors most affected by this bill.
It is time for the President to weigh in, too. After all, he articulated a vision of open government - and promised to deliver it - during a forceful campaign speech in 2008: "I will make our government open and transparent so that anyone can ensure that our business is the People's business," he said. "I am going to make it impossible for congressmen or lobbyists to slip pork-barrel projects or corporate welfare into laws when no one is looking because, when I'm president, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public. No more secrecy. That's a commitment I'm going to make to you as President: No more secrecy."
The President outlined a clear vision of open government in that speech:
"When there's a bill that ends up on my desk as President, you, the public, will have five days to look online and find out what's in it before I sign it so that you know what your government is doing.
When there are meetings between government lobbyists and a government agency, we will put as many of those meetings as possible on line for every American to watch.
When there's a tax bill being debated in Congress, you will know the names of the corporations that would benefit and how much money they would get, and we will put every corporate tax break and every pork-barrel project on line for every American to see. You will know who asked for them, and you can decide whether your representative is actually representing you."
Chairman Barney Frank of the House Financial Services Committee promised televised hearings back in March, saying "nothing will be ratified without a public debate." But he appeared to roll back his pledge somewhat this week. ""The negotiations will go on in private," Frank said, "but the results of any discussion are going to have to be voted on."
Off-camera negotiation is more business as usual. Up-or-down votes on pre-agreed deals is not full transparency, no matter how much speechmaking is allowed beforehand. Elected officials could still wheel and deal for Wall Street in private and then strike a populist pose in public.
Chairman Frank also said that conference participants won't have much personal power. "I believe that we... will be more the agents of collective decision-making than autonomous deciders," he said. That means the real dealmaking will take place in the caucuses, especially the Dems'. If the parties won't open their caucuses to public scrutiny, then at a minimum both parties should express their "collective" positions well in advance of the conference sessions.
The White House can help ... and it should. First, it should use its voice and its influence to push for full transparency. Then it should provide any technical resources needed, since it has much greater resources than Congress. The public should be able to save and review portions of the televised debate online, with links to the same documents, briefing books, and memos provided to the conferees. Beth Noveck, the Administration's Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, would be an ideal candidate to lead the effort. She's not well known to the general public, but she's one of the most interesting and imaginative thinkers operating in government today. Novick, or someone like her, could marshal the resources needed to deliver on the public's behalf.
Given that the Administration's a major player in the proceedings, their actions should also be visible to the public. If, for example, they're expressing an ambiguously-phrased coolness toward Lincoln's derivatives amendment in public, we should know how they're addressing the issue in negotiations. (White House participation would also help clear the air after criticisms of its level of openness during the health reform process, from Nancy Pelosi and other progressives as well as Republicans).
Some of these suggestions may seem like "blue sky" ideas, although they're easily executed with the technology now available. At the very least, however,"full transparency" must mean 1) holding all the meetings in public, 2) giving the public online access to each and every document and memo provided to the conferees, and 3) giving the public five days to review the final bill before a vote is held.
Please sign this petition to demand that these minimum requirements for public transparency are met. Voters of the future may thank you. Your checkbook probably will, too.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates