December 9, 2004
On Capitol Hill next month it'll be out with
the old and in with the new, as the 109th Congress takes the oath
Of course, neither house will look much different. More than 95 percent of incumbents who ran this year were re-elected. Still, the beginning of a session is a time for changes. Here's one that would make a genuine difference: Make the legislative process more open.
For example, when lawmakers write their rules for this session, they ought to require that every spending measure and conference report be posted on the Internet for at least one day before members can vote on it. And that should be a bare minimum -- after all, it would still be difficult to read an entire appropriations bill in one night.
Posting the text wouldn't be difficult. Every measure has to be typed up before it can be presented for consideration. That typed document can easily be posted as a file attachment on the Web. But this small change would pay big dividends.
If you doubt that, just ask Dan Rather.
In September, the soon-to-retire CBS anchor worked on a "60 Minutes" broadcast that showed several documents, supposedly from the early 1970s, which seemed to prove that President Bush had failed to complete his service in the Texas National Guard. The documents, it turns out, were complete forgeries.
Within hours of the CBS broadcast, Internet bloggers were taking the story apart piece-by-piece. They noted that the documents were written in a font style that's common in Microsoft Word, but virtually unheard of 30 years ago. They pointed out that the letters in the documents were proportionally spaced, while typewriters in the '70s rarely offered this feature. And they showed that the documents used "superscript" (e.g., making the "th" smaller and elevated in 7th), again, a common feature in modern Microsoft programs but something unavailable on ordinary typewriters of the day.
It was the classic case of the market proving smarter than any one person (as Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek might have pointed out). It could have taken a single investigator weeks to uncover all those clues. But through the Web, a typewriter expert here, a graphic designer there and a computer programmer somewhere else were able to pool their knowledge, examine the documents and prove they were falsified. All within hours.
Now imagine this process applied to a spending bill. Let's recall that, just last month, Congress had to rework a $388 billion appropriations measure because somebody slipped in a provision that would have allowed Appropriations Committee staffers to look at confidential IRS records.
By the time that "mistake" was discovered, House members had already passed the spending bill. They had to return to Washington, rework the legislation and vote again to fix the mistake. This could have been avoided if the bill had been posted to the Web beforehand.
Instead, we would have had numerous taxpayers combing through the bill. Bloggers would have found the provision, talk-radio hosts would have amplified their comments, and voters would have complained to their representatives.
This same process would allow us to identify and eliminate wasteful spending measures before they become law. And it would actually be more evolutionary than revolutionary. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1995, he helped create "Thomas," which makes the text of every bill available online at thomas.loc.gov.
But Thomas doesn't yet include the full text of, for example, spending measures. What we need is full disclosure of every bill, before it's voted on. The public deserves more than just the chance to read bills that have become law; it ought to be able to comment on measures that are under consideration.
That's a sure-fire way to ensure that the 109th Congress is more accountable -- and thus does a better job -- than the 108th.
Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), a conservative think tank based in Washington.