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Bring Democracy Into the Halls of Congress

July 14, 2004

Bring Democracy Into the Halls of Congress

Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Democracy is a dearly cherished way of life, but sometimes its rules are hard to live by. Principles of free speech and tolerance for others are particularly difficult rules to live by for those who are in the majority and in control.

While Congress works so hard at protecting the principles of democracy at home and abroad, it frequently ignores those same principles for how Congress works. That is why I am delighted to be here to announce Public Citizen’s support of Rep. Marty Meehan’s “Democracy in Congress Act.”

Congress has long had a history of partisan bickering leading to functional breakdown, in which the party in control attempts to squelch the speech of the minority party and derail full and open deliberation of public policies. Democrats, when they were the majority party, attempted to muzzle Republicans through unfair rules and procedures in the 1990s. Republicans are doing the same against Democrats today.

It is time to stop the bickering and functional breakdown, and bring democracy into the halls of Congress. Republicans proposed exactly this back in the 1990s; Rep. Meehan proposes it today. Let’s finally listen, recognize the value of democracy in the policymaking process and get Congress on track in addressing the nation’s and the world’s problems.

Some of the problems of a Congress that operates in an undemocratic way have become ever-so obvious in recent years. Touching upon some of the most critical legislation passed by Congress, these problems include:

First, an absence of full deliberation on legislation. Today, the minority party is not allowed under the rules of Congress to conduct formal hearings on legislative matters or offer a full minority alternative bill to proposed legislation. Even more alarming, congressional rules allow the majority party to fundamentally re-write legislation in conference committee behind closed doors and without any accountability. Republicans inserted a variety of special-interest giveaways in the Homeland Security Act – such as the exemption for the Eli Lilly Company from lawsuits for faulty products – that were wholly unrelated to homeland security. No one even knew who inserted these special-interest provisions, even after TomPaine.com offered a $10,000 reward for the identity of the Congress member – or lobbyist – who inserted the Eli Lilly giveaway.

The Democracy in Congress Act will end these back-door, secretive deals by:

  • Guaranteeing that the minority party may introduce full alternative bills and amendments to pending legislation for consideration by the House;
  • Requiring that final text of bills, amendments and conference reports be in print and publicly available on-line for three days before a final vote;
  • Creating a “stand by your earmark” rule that would require each amendment to a bill in conference committee to be publicly recorded and attributed to a specific lawmaker; and,
  • Stopping the practice of extending the time period for congressional votes for the purpose of lobbying members to change their vote beyond 30 minutes. The time period for casting votes should not be changed whenever the majority party thinks it might be losing the vote count.

A second structural problem is the lack of public accountability for lobbyists.

Lobbyists have proven instrumental in shaping, if not drafting, the legislation that comes out of Congress. Yet, the public knows very little about what these lobbyists do and who they represent. Sure, there are some general disclosure requirements imposed upon lobbyists: They report how much they are getting paid and the general issue areas they work on to the Clerk of the House and the Secretary of the Senate. The Senate Secretary – but not the Clerk of the House – has at least scanned some of these reports onto its Web site, but even professional researchers can make little heads or tails of these scanned reports.

The lobbyist reports on the Secretary of the Senate’s Web page are not searchable or sortable by bill number or special-interest group and are not easily downloadable to be placed into a more useful database program. Quite frankly, if you do not live in Washington and have a lot of free time on your hands, you cannot figure out who is lobbying for what and on behalf of whom. Adding to the veil of secrecy when it comes to lobbying, whole categories of lobbying activity known as “grass-roots lobbying,” in which a special interest group buys TV ads across the country to muster public opposition to legislation, is not reported at all.

The Democracy in Congress Act will help tear down the veil of secrecy in lobbying by:

  • Requiring lobbyists to file their reports electronically and the House and the Senate to disclose those reports in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format on the Internet, like the Federal Election Commission does for campaign contributions;
  • Requiring lobbyists to disclose their one-on-one contacts in person or by phone with members of Congress or the executive branch;
  • Requiring lobbyists to report the total amount spent on “grass-roots” lobbying activity intended to influence federal legislation; and,
  • Requiring members of a lobbying “coalition” to disclose how much they contributed to fund the lobbying activities of that coalition. Currently, only the coalition reports its total lobbying expenditures, while the contributions by members of the coalition remain cloaked from public view.

Congress will function well only when it learns to value the principles of democracy and operate under open and fair procedures. The Democracy in Congress Act brings Congress a long way toward the democratic ideal.