Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Turn on the Lights and Watch Them Scurry

John Cole links to an interesting suggestion for slowing down the out of control spending of Congress. He mentions it as a "long term solutions to the current budget crisis." I disagree, as it only seriously addresses the spending half of the problem—most specificallly how money is appropriated. But the plan hinges on a really good idea—transparency in government. Imagine that!
• The text of all budgetary/spending legislation should be published on the internet at least Seven (7) days prior to a Congressional vote, giving citizens and legislators the time and opportunity to actually read each bill—and to express an opinion to their representatives should they so desire.

• All specific expenditures will be voted on independently; riders are prohibited. If Congress wants to load up a spending bill with Pork, then each Congressman will have to vote up or down on each individual item. If a majority of Congressmen/Senators believe that a $233 million bridge in Alaska is a worthwhile use of public money, let them vote accordingly—individually, specifically and publicly.

• If there are 6000 similar earmarks—as there are in the Transportation bill—they can repeat the process 6000 times. It's not terribly difficult to mark each expenditure with a "yea" or "nay" vote. At the end of the day, any earmark with majority approval can go on the budget; an earmark that cannot get the approval of a majority of Congressmen on its own merits does not deserve approval as part of a larger spending bill.

I love it. Making the text for spending bill available to the public a week before the vote is huge, as well as the requirement for a vote on each earmark. If they were forced to do that, not only would those disappear as a matter of accountability, but as a simple matter of convenience/getting the thing out the door.

Some in the comments [at the original thread] wanted even longer public review, but there is no way that would ever work. Even asking seven days will be a near impossibility. As it is right now, members of Congress themselves often have to vote without reading it first. It is commonplace for the leadership to produce one copy of legislation (often inches thick with pages), keep it in the chamber where everyone's staff will be forced to share it, and introduce it so late in the game that no one gets a chance to even have aides pore through it.

Then they vote in the middle of the night and hold that vote open 'til the vote goes the way they want. They pulled this stunt again just last week.

If this process can be exposed for the bullshit that it is and made transparent and accountable, it will be the biggest step all by itself. No more posing and preening for your constituents about what you brought home for the district without having to answer for what you sent to Alaska (or wherever).

As for the rest of the suggestions—all valid arguments, but I'm never going to favor a flat or consumption tax over a progressive income tax that targets unearned income over earned payroll income—I am after all a liberal. Just more on the tax side than the spend side.

UPDATE: Commenter and professional skeptic/curmudgeon ppGaz points out, "You guys are dreaming. Read the spending bills? Not even the legislators do that; they have staff for such things. The public is not going to read those stacks of paper..."

Fair enough. That's true. Obviously, no one will be camping out on the Capitol steps waiting for the latest Bill like it was a Harry Potter release… but, if this was SOP, is it possible that, say, the NY Times (or somebody) might actually pay a couple writers to dissect these things into plain English and bullet points for general consumption? That would be an invaluable public service. They could even feel free to editorialize on it if they like.

ppGaz concludes with, "... you are more likely to end up with paralysis than anything else. You want to replace the wheeling and dealing in the halls of Congress with the blathering of Geraldo Rivera and Bill O’Reilly?"

I think most Americans would take a little "paralysis" right about now. It's time to yank the credit cards away from the drunken spring break teenagers. And if Geraldo and Bill O'Reilly are shining a light on the armtwisting and brokering in Congress, that's more oversight than we have right now.

Even if it doesn’t evolve into an effective brake system for bad legislation and spending right away, it creates the clear record and paper trail that I still think is necessary. As shygetz (another commenter) concludes, "the public gets to see policy being made, and back-room deals will be harder. If it does nothing else besides moving back-room deals to the front room, that’s enough for me."

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