Republicans should capitalize on the electorate’s ire about Democratic leaders' secrecy in the healthcare debate with reform legislation that promises transparency, some conservatives say.
The closed-door approach has been especially highlighted since C-SPAN CEO Brian Lamb publicized his Dec. 30 letter to congressional leaders asking them to let his cameras record the final stretch of the healthcare reform process.
The request aimed at getting the Democratic leadership to adhere to President Barack Obama’s as-yet unfulfilled campaign promise to allow cameras to monitor the proceedings.
Criticism of the secrecy has transcended political parties. Rep. Joseph Sestak, D-Pa., who is challenging incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., for his Senate seat, lampooned the process during a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
"They said it would be transparent. Why isn't it?" Sestak said. "At times, I find the caucus is a real disappointment. We aren't transparent, not just to the public but at times to the members."
Let Freedom Ring President Colin Hanna says the Democrats’ decision to evade the normal conference committee process and develop the final bill in secrecy smacks of arrogance and violates the democratic process.
Pollster Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports told Newsmax that voters have a strong distrust of how both parties have been conducting themselves, and voters have indicated widespread support for reforms that would require openness. His polls indicate voter concern about government ethics, and corruption ranks second only to the economy in voters’ minds.
“A question we asked recently was whether people supported having legislation posted online,” Rasmussen said. “The majority said they wanted it posted online for not just a couple of days, but for a one- or two-week period.”
Voters also want members of Congress to disclose their meetings with federal regulators, along with the content of those meeting, he said.
Conservative activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform says Republicans could further improve their chances in November if they tap into this voter angst by endorsing a congressional Sunshine Law or other measure, similar to those governing countless state legislatures.
These laws, although they differ by state, require having most legislative actions, generally excepting those dealing with legal advice or personnel matters, be conducted in public. States such as Pennsylvania require their legislature to conduct all legislative business, excepting that by ethics review boards or party caucuses, in public.
The Pennsylvania legislation imposes severe penalties on those who meet outside the rules of the commonwealth’s Sunshine Law, including fines and the invalidation of any actions arising from an illegal meeting.
Norquist told Newsmax that Republicans could show voters they have learned a lot since they lost control of Congress in 2006 if they were to endorse a sunshine law or other measures that would require transparency.
He said he believes Republican candidates should endorse measures such as requiring the posting of all bills on the Internet for five days before they come up for a vote, and requiring them to be posted for an additional five days.
Norquist also wants a subsequent five-day review period if any amendments get inserted, which could lessen the chances of congressional leaders dropping material into legislation at the last minute before members of either house of Congress could examine it.
“This would ensure there are no more backroom deals and no more secret deals and you can’t pay someone off for their votes,” Norquist said. “I think this resonates very well with the American people.
“It would be very helpful, and it’s exactly the kind of reform that would say Republican candidates and Republican challengers have learned something and that they will govern differently than in the past.”
He also favors eliminating late-night votes as a way of clamping down on efforts to hastily pass legislation. Some states already have this restriction in their legislatures.
House Study Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., said such reforms could go a long way toward improving how Congress operates and make it more accountable to the voters. The current way of doing things, he says, allows the Democratic leadership to hide their legislative “bribes” to get healthcare and other controversial legislation passed in a way that obstructs the voters’ right to know.
He said he believes all congressional deliberations should be done openly unless an overwhelming reason exists not to.
“Anything that allows the American people to see more of the process of government is important … so they can tell who they believe is representing them in an appropriate manner,” Price said. “To restore the trust of the American people in their government, they need to be able to see that people are acting seriously and honestly, and sincerely.”
Price said he has been pushing the Republican conference to devise a statement similar to 1994’s Contract With America, which he believes should include a commitment to transparency.
Rasmussen, however, said Republicans could have difficulty convincing the public they are any more interested in reforming how Congress operates than the Democrats are because of the electorate’s deep cynicism.
Republicans would gain ground in the fall by highlighting the Democrats’ failed promises in the ethics and transparency arenas, but they would be able to regain firm credibility with voters only by governing in an open manner for several years.
“In politics, there is a difference between winning one election and governing,” Rasmussen said.
Lacy Dalglish, spokeswoman for the Reporters Committee For Freedom of The Press, echoes the plea for openness. Dalglish says her group would welcome a strong law akin to Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act, but she doubts many in Congress, Republican or Democrat, would be able to stomach such a law because they like secrecy too much.
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