Sweet Column: Citizen ``para-lobbyists’’ Get $1,000 if you persuade a lawmaker to disclose schedule!

SHARE Sweet Column: Citizen ``para-lobbyists’’ Get $1,000 if you persuade a lawmaker to disclose schedule!
SHARE Sweet Column: Citizen ``para-lobbyists’’ Get $1,000 if you persuade a lawmaker to disclose schedule!

Let’s take these two concepts — the positive power of the blogs and the sense that people have a right to know about their government — and see if there is a way to wrangle even more transparency into the federal system.

Many of the public figures I cover resist giving out even routine scheduling information — especially on the political side of their work, even after events have occurred. Their empowered staffers, acting in the names of their bosses, often treat requests for a schedule with a range of non-responses — from imperial scorn to silence to collegial replies so artfully vague they are useless. Now, a government watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, is offering a bounty of $1,000 to any person — any self-made activist — who can get a member of Congress to sign a pledge stating simply they will make public matters relating to their work. The bounty is $250 for getting the signature of a congressional candidate.

click below for details….

There is a lot to criticize in Congress, but one praiseworthy bipartisan achievement is a new law making transparent all federal spending, quarterbacked by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Now let’s build on that spirit of transparency that can only make our country better and ask lawmakers to volunteer to make transparent — that is, to disclose — what groups they speak to and with whom they meet.

Obama, teaming with Coburn, sponsored the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. Their measure was stalled for a time last month — some anonymous senator or senators placed a secret hold on the bill. (It’s allowed under Senate rules.) In a remarkable display of Internet-enabled citizen activism, the secret hold was broken because people, acting on their own — but together, through blogs — played detective and eliminated from the universe of 100 all but the two senators with the secret holds — Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.). (To see how this unfolded, click www.pork busters.org/secrethold.php.)

Once their names were revealed, Stevens and Byrd soon lifted their holds and the Obama-Coburn bill was on its way to becoming law. Eventually, all recipients of federal grants and contracts will be identified and the information will be on a searchable free Obama/Coburn database. With all the earmark abuse around Washington, the database bill is an important step forward.

Let’s take these two concepts — the positive power of the blogs and the sense that people have a right to know about their government — and see if there is a way to wrangle even more transparency into the system.

Many of the public figures I cover resist giving out even routine scheduling information — especially on the political side of their work, even after events have occurred. Their empowered staffers, acting in the names of their bosses, often treat requests for a schedule with a range of non-responses — from imperial scorn to silence to collegial replies so artfully vague they are useless. Now, a government watchdog group, the Sunlight Foundation, is offering a bounty of $1,000 to any person — any self-made activist — who can get a member of Congress to sign a pledge stating simply they will make public matters relating to their work. The bounty is $250 for getting the signature of a congressional candidate.

Ellen Miller, the founder and co-director of the Sunlight Foundation, calls it the Punch Clock campaign (at www.punchclockcampaign.org) and says she has $680,000 in the bank. This campaign is designed to allow for exclusions for matters dealing with national security and personal security, the privacy of a constituent and items of personal nature.

But if a lawmaker meets with a lobbyist — if a lobbyist hosts a fund-raiser — that should be made public, and it would under this pledge: “I believe citizens have a right to know what their Member of Congress does every day. Starting with the next Congress, I promise to publish my daily official work schedule on the Internet, within 24 hours of the end of every work day. I will include all matters relating to my role as a Member of Congress. I will include all meetings with constituents, other Members, and lobbyists, listed by name. [In rare cases I will withhold the names of constituents whose privacy must be protected.] I will also include all fundraising events. Events will be listed whether Congress is in session or not, and whether I am in Washington, traveling, or in my district.”

Miller has been around Washington enough to know members will sign it only if voters start lobbying their members. And regarding the bounty — Miller sees nothing wrong with paying people, para-professional citizen lobbyists, for their work. How hard will it be for Miller to spend her bankroll? The government and political offices of three of the most prominent Illinoisans I cover, all of national rank — Obama, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the boss of the House Democratic political operation — make it hard, sometimes impossible, to find out where they go and how they spend much of their governmental and political day.

Obama’s office, for example, will not on a routine basis announce all political events, such as a Wednesday evening appearance in Alexandria for Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb. His schedule did include a speech on energy sponsored by MoveOn.org, a decidedly political group. What’s the difference that would have any meaning to a real person? Last Thursday’s trip to Louisville, Ky., was not on Obama’s “official” schedule — though it was reported he spoke to 5,000 people there and headlined a fund-raiser.

Politics and campaign fund-raising, said Miller, has become such “an integral part of what senators do that it has become a de facto part of their official calendar and something we believe the public should know.”

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