Monday, September 18, 2006

Why You Need to Know What Congress is Doing

Even at the best of times, it's hard to know what Congress is up to. Its rules are complicated. The words and phrases that House and Senate members use to describe the particulars of legislating seem arcane. Even the bills they write are tricky to follow, what with their instructions to strike this line or that paragraph in some previous law and replace it with new language.

Still, when Congress is functioning as it should, it only takes a little effort and some basic knowledge to follow its workings.

Not at the moment, though. Congress has become an opaque and secretive institution. This is a dangerous and troubling development for a democracy.

In essence, longstanding procedures have been changed with an eye toward centralizing power and making it much more difficult for those not in their inner circle — including many members of Congress, the press, and ordinary Americans — to see what they're doing.

Congressional leaders, more and more, are restricting the free flow of information for the purpose of developing legislation. This is handy for them, because it allows them to write bills without the messiness of open debate. But it's not a very good deal for the American people, because it also makes it nearly impossible for voters to hold their elected representatives accountable for their actions.

These days, key legislative decisions are often made behind closed doors. Committees used to be where the action was: where expert witnesses could give their opinion, where rank-and-file members of Congress could weigh in, where legislation got shaped. Now, committees too often just give a formal stamp of approval to measures that have already been crafted by congressional leaders, their staffers, lobbyists, and administration officials.

As the House worked on an important "bankruptcy reform" bill, for instance, congressional leaders overseeing the process rejected any amendments to a Senate version that had been developed with the help of the credit industry. As congressional scholars Tom Mann and Norman Ornstein wrote, "Actively seeking to prevent any deliberative process, the leaders of the House and Senate obtained a law — but one that was filled with holes and problems, many easily anticipated."

Why does this matter? I think the answer lies in the words from Alexander Hamilton that are carved into the House chambers, words that every member of the House can see: "Here, Sir, the people govern." Our nation rests on the belief that we, Americans of every stripe and belief, have the final say on whether we approve or disapprove of what our representatives and our government are doing in our name.

Yet how can we judge and weigh their actions if we don't know what they're doing? Our system depends on informed voters making discriminating decisions, and this means not just seeing the final product, but also being able to understand and even weigh in on its shaping.

Democracy thrives on information; secrecy is its enemy. Secrecy limits the informed consent of the people, and increases ignorance concerning public issues. It reduces our capacity to act wisely. If the facts about the need for a proposed policy, its cost, and its probable consequences are kept from the public, then democracy is threatened. The less people know, as information is withheld from them, the more suspicious and cynical they become.

This does not mean that every discussion needs to take place in front of the television cameras. There is a place in a democracy for politicians to do what we expect of them — that is, to discuss issues freely, strive to accommodate one another's points of view, and arrive at a consensus that works for the American people as a whole.

But that is not what has been happening over the past several years. The regular order of the traditions of the Congress has been subverted. Too many key decisions are being made in secret.

The truth is, process matters in government. What is called the "regular order" in Congress — the cumbersome steps designed to ensure that legislation gets discussed and examined, that all relevant information flows freely in the process, and that members have a chance to negotiate and compromise — all this developed because it is the best way for people from different regions who hold different beliefs to be part of governing.

Which means that the solution to Congress's growing furtiveness is not at all radical; it's simply a return to what used to be. If decisions are once again made in committee and on the floor, if members of Congress can offer amendments in public and see them debated in public, then not only will Congress have gone a long way toward restoring its transparency, but also the American people will once again have a national legislature they can understand and trust.

From Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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