Wednesday, February 1, 2012

New Congress Website Doesn't Reverse Diminishing Transparency

Watchdogs Say Transparency Efforts Fall Short
(Bloggers Note:  I will publish a link to this new Website when I can locate it.)

By Eugene Mulero and Kristin Coyner
CQ Roll Call Staff

Feb. 1, 2012, Midnight
Thanks to a website launched in January, the public for the first time has a centralized location to track bills on the House floor. It’s the latest step Congressional leaders have taken to open up the legislative process.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the site a “victory for open government.” Leading government watchdog groups say it isn’t nearly enough and fear lawmakers might actually be going in the opposite direction when it comes to transparency.

Exhibit A for those groups: the series of behind-closed-doors meetings held last year by the much-hyped Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction.

“Much of what the super committee was about was a fight between leadership versus the committees,” said Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation. “Congress as a policymaking body is becoming weaker and weaker.”

The super committee promoted this notion, which some say is part of a larger trend.

Many Capitol Hill offices have routine firewalls between press and senior aides, some markups are held behind closed doors and major bills are regularly dropped from leadership onto rank-and-file lawmakers with little notice — the 2010 health care overhaul being a notorious recent example.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), for instance, doesn’t allow his staff, other than spokesman Harry Gural, to talk to the press.

“The fact is, if it’s something about policy, Congressman Frank is the best interview on the Hill,” Gural said. “There’s really no reason to be tying up the staff.”

The media’s acceptance of email statements instead of interviews has contributed to inaccessibility by some Hill offices, said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation.

“Increasingly, I think Members of Congress are able to control precisely what was said and not be dinged by the reporter either in the story itself or harming an ongoing relationship,” Fitch said.

But beyond being an inconvenience for reporters, watchdog groups say, secrecy and its first cousin, inaccessibility, are increasingly having an effect on legislative outcomes.

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