Government accountability on the ballot
Government accountability on the ballot: This topic refers to ballot measures regarding open meeting laws, as well as government ethics and corruption.
- Alaska Anti Corruption Act, Ballot Measure 1 (August 2010)
- California Proposition 59, the "Sunshine Amendment" (2004)
Ballot measures lists
Issues regarding accountability and transparency generally involve questions of how informed the government allows its citizens to be regarding their actions, particularly with federal funds. Other issues can include:
- use of public resources and taxpayer funds for political means.
- acceptance of gifts from lobbyists.
- taxpayer funded lobbying.
- exchange of favors for campaign donations.
- availability of politicians to be questioned by citizens.
- good and bad reasons for withholding information.
- maintenance of network of public records for things like meeting dates and topics, deliberative records, documents exchanged between parties, etc.
- systems of merit to determine qualifications, employment and tenure.
History of US accountability / transparency reform
With the lofty ideals of liberty and individual freedom that the first legislators of the United States expressed, there necessarily came a consistent, if sometimes wavering since then, focus on comprehensive transparency of the use of governmental power and accountability to citizens. Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution and the inauguration of the First Congress, the House of Representatives opened their doors to public admission on April 9, 1789, fitting with its popular nature as constructed of men directly representative of the voting population. The Senate followed suit about six years later, a process that was considerably more laborious, as they had maintained a moderately strict policy of secrecy since their inception. Beyond simply allowing people to attend deliberative meetings, the first move towards comprehensive federal transparency came with the Postal Act of 1792. It ensured an easier flow of newspapers than regular mail through the postal service by lowering postage rates, taking distribution power out of the hands of the Postmaster General, who had previously been able to set rules for the admission of newspapers to the mail, and into the public at large. James Madison highlighted the importance of such reform while lobbying for permanent low rates, saying, "In such an one [government] as ours, where members are so far removed from the eye of their constituents, an easy and prompt circulation of public proceedings is peculiarly essential."
Much of the United States' history regarding federal transparency and major reform has surrounded furthering citizens' knowledge of Congressional proceedings and actions. These were first made public to a wide range of people in 1814, when Congress passed a bill which required official printers for each session. Joseph Gales and William Seaton, editors of the Washington-based National Intelligencer, won both posts easily and served in this role from 1819 to 1827. In 1824, they launched and made public the Register of Debates, a series of abstracts intended to cover Congress' daily activities. The rise of Andrew Jackson and the eventual domination of Washington by the Democratic Party (who the National Intelligencer regularly criticized) spurred the administration to help as much as they could to create a new paper that would carry Congressional debates and phase out Gale and Seaton, which eventually succeeded in 1837. To replace it, Jackson shifted patronage funds to the Congressional Globe (now the Congressional Record). By the 1850s, both chambers contracted the Globe to carry their record, firmly establishing a monopoly on Congressional hearings. More nonpartisan coverage was maintained, however, as they hired more reporters with differing ideologies. The Globe provided coverage until 1873, when lawmakers found the increased work too much for a single private printer to handle. Despite the expiration their contract, Congress kept the stenographers and format for the newly instituted Congressional Record. Much controversy, however, has surrounded the Record, as lawmakers are allowed to insert and correct the transcript before it is printed.
For visiting members of the press, parity as a means to proper government transparency came difficultly. During the Jacksonian era, Washington publishing houses (which were the only papers allowed into the gallery at the time) were far more likely to align with Democrats, making it difficult to get an objective or bipartisan views concerning Congress' actions. Outside papers, more often aligned with the opposition Whig party, were generally ignored by legislators and repeatedly tried to force the Senate to change gallery rules. Reform wasn't made, however, until the Democrats were swept out of power in 1840 by the Whigs following a severe economic recession. Despite the shift in power, pro-Whig outside papers were still banned. This allowed large outside papers, particularly the New York Herald, to constantly pound the Senate for refusing to admit their "superb corps of Reporters." On July 2, 1841, a resolution was finally passed to construct a committee to review the rule for reporter admission. The new rule that resulted was the creation of a press gallery overseeing the entire chamber, which would now accommodate one reporter from outside papers. Further consolidation of support in the press was reformed later as well, when Congress ended the practice of employing a private printer to distribute proceedings. In response to repeated occurrences of politically influenced and corrupt modes of electing printer, Congress established the Government Printing Office, whose current stated function is to serve as "the Federal Government's primary centralized resource for gathering, cataloging, producing, providing, authenticating, and preserving published information in all its forms."
The next swath of reform was spurred by the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal of 1872, in which the Union Pacific Railroad company presented the government with fraudulent invoices for construction costs to pocket the money. The scandal became public after Representative Oakes Ames essentially gave for free stock from the company to help secure railroad leases for large projects. In the end, most involved politicians were found out and Union Pacific was left nearly bankrupt. Despite this first major encounter with lobbying in Congress, little meaningful reform resulted, with only a temporary requirement to register with the Clerk of the House placed on lobbyists. It set the stage, however, focused on disclosure of the profession itself rather than just its effects in Congress. Corruption on the part of journalists also spurred Congress to place stricter rules on how gallery reporters were paid and unequivocally barred them from lobbying or engaging with the executive branch.
The next wave of reform came during the Progressive Era trend of campaign finance reform, in which legislators tried to curb the influence massive donations from big businesses had on elections and the actions of elected officials. The basic template for the better part of campaign finance reform legislation was the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925. Largely a response to the Teapot Dome Scandal of the Harding administration, it instituted revisions on past campaign finance legislation that raised spending limits slightly and required all political committees to disclose their expenditures. Unfortunately, for most of the time in which the bill determined laws regarding the subject, it was constantly ignored and rarely was there severe punishment for infractions. The interaction of business and government was further targeted by Congress when they passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938, which required all "foreign agents" representing foreign principles to register with the Department of Justice. While born out of paranoia concerning a Nazi takeover of the White House, it established the first comprehensive lobbyist registration and disclosure of lobbying reform in history. Later, Congress passed the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act to address inconsistencies in the FARA by having any organized group that could influence legislation register with the Clerk of the House and quarterly expenditure records must be provided that went towards this objective. Even this, however, had its own problems. It failed to provide a precise definition of what constituted lobbying or an adequate enforcement system, and so almost total disregard for the new laws continued.
Beginning the early to mid 20th century, technological advances started having more and more to do with increased immediacy between Congress' actions and the information outlets that related them to citizens. Only twenty-four years after the first public broadcast of any sort of congressional proceedings over the radio, the first televised broadcast of Congress occurred in 1947. Although in this case, only about two hours of opening remarks and speeches went out to televisions, it marked an important precedent in bringing the public into closer contact with lawmakers. Just a year later, the House Un-American Activities Committee held a special session to address accusations that high level government employees were Communist agents, with most of the proceedings being televised. Television also proved to be a component of the next major round of transparency legislation with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970. In addition to permitting television and radio coverage of all House committee hearings, it required committees to publicly release all recorded votes, limited proxy voting, encouraged committees to hold open hearings, and implemented recorded electronic voting on the House floor. The Senate followed suit a few years later in opening up their committee hearings to the public. Further experimentation with publicizing the legislative process came to a head in 1977 when Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill announced a 90-day closed circuit test period for televised hearings, which eventually led to the establishment of the public service station C-SPAN.
Further reform came with the Public Official Integrity Act of 1977 Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which eventually came to be rolled into one legislative act. More than simply requiring the disclosure of spending information, it extended pertinent information to include outside earned income, positions held outside the government and any agreements for future employment. Furthermore, it established the Office of Government Ethics to regulate the fulfillment of these requirements.
In the same way television revolutionized the extent to which people could feel involved in legislative acts, the internet soon filled the same role later in the century. In 1993, the Government Printing Office Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act, more commonly referred to as the GPO Access bill, was passed, requiring the GPO to post online the Congressional Record and the Federal Register, rather than have them distributed by private companies for a fee. Over the rest of the decade, Congress slowly compiled more information into online databases for public viewership. In 1995, the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971 was amended to allow the Federal Election Commission to file campaign finance reports electronically and further required House members to file reports with the FEC, rather than the Clerk of the House. Eventually the FEC mandated the submission of finance reports in this way, but allowed the Senate to exempt themselves because senators file directly with the Secretary of State, whose office sends it to the FEC.
In recent years, personal earmarks and "pork" spending have become increasingly high profile issues, and Congress' legislation reflects this. In 2006, Republicans were able to pass (before the new Democratic majority began session) a rule change which mandated earmark disclosure. For every earmark inserted in an appropriations bill, the name of the legislator who was involved with its placement must be included. The new Democratic Congress expanded the rule, saying disclosure of all earmarks, tax benefits and tariff benefits in all bills, amendments and conference reports was required as well as the associated member of Congress.
- Grotta, Gerald L. "Philip Freneau's Crusade for Open Sessions of the U.S. Senate", Journalism Quarterly 48, pg.667-671
- Bimber, Bruce Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power. Cambridge University Press, 2003
- Ritchie, Donald A. Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents, Cambridge: Harvard University, 1991
- Sunlight Foundation, "Transparency Timeline"
- Marbut, F.B. News from the Capital: The Story of Washington Reporting, Southern Illinois University Press, 1971
- Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, "The Credit Mobilier"
- Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. The Politics of Upheaval: The Age of Roosevelt 1935-1936, Boston, 1960. pg.78-95
- Zeller, Belle. "American Government and Politics: The Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act", The American Political Science Review, Vol. 42, No. 2, pg. 239-271
- Zelizer, Julian E. On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004
- Ethics in Government Act of 1978. Pub. L. 95-521, 92 Stat. 1824
- Casey, Chris. The Hill on the Net: Congress Enters the Information Age. Orlando: AP Professional, 1996
- The Los Angeles Times, "Everybody Will Know If It's Pork", January 6, 2007