A political science cliché is that candidates who run for office promising open government renege on that promise once in political power.

The early 1980s British sitcom “Yes Minister” depicted this political logic brilliantly and hilariously. After the star of the program wins office, he discovers a million rationalizations why open government is inconvenient.

As his aide advises him, “if the people don’t know what you’re doing, they don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”

Are Congress and President Barack Obama playing out this eternal logic? When the Democrats took power in 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, promised to create “the most honest and open Congress in American history.” When Obama won in 2008, he promised “to usher in a new era of open government.”

Yes, some progress has been made. But vividly illustrating the current discrepancy between promise and practice is the recent digital TV bill signed into law by the president on February 11.

The bill was passed as an emergency measure ostensibly to prevent any households from losing access to over-the-air TV on February 17. The open government transgressions included:

First, neither the House Energy and Commerce Committee chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, nor the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation chaired by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, had a hearing, markup, or vote on the bill.

Second, the House committee canceled two announced markups, the first less than an hour before it was scheduled. The announced reason for the cancellation by Waxman made no sense, as it was based on information that was five days old.

Third, by avoiding a committee vote, Waxman and Rockefeller could ask for a floor vote on the bill without the otherwise required Congressional Budget Office estimate of its cost to the private sector.

Fourth, the Senate and first House vote on the bill took place without publicly releasing a copy of the bill.

Fifth, the bill was introduced on the House Floor under a closed rule, allowing no amendments.

On the House Floor, Rep. Greg Walden, R-OR, summarized the frustration of those who wanted to amend the bill: “[T]here was no hearing on this bill in committee. There was no markup on this bill in committee. There has never been an opportunity to amend this bill on this floor or in committee…. Now I am trying to figure out how that’s democracy in action and how that is change for a better day.”

Meanwhile, Waxman announced that to expedite business, opening statements by rank-and-file committee members would only be allowed at his discretion. Opening statements allow minorities to reveal accountability forcing information.

Was the digital TV bill an emergency, thus justifying short circuiting open government rules? Rep. Rick Boucher, D-VA, chairman of the House communications subcommittee repeatedly stated on the House floor that since 1) there was only 13 days (less than two weeks) until February 17; 2) the government could only process 1.6 million digital TV coupons per week; and 3) there were at least 3.7 million unfulfilled coupon requests; then it was impossible to fulfill all the requests before February 17.

But if the committee leadership hadn’t canceled the two committee markups, this emergency claim couldn’t have been made.

In fact, the digital TV bill was a sop to the politically powerful broadcast industry, which has used the digital TV transition to win spectrum rights worth billions of dollars and used various delays (this was the fourth) as lobbying leverage for giveaways, including government subsidized equipment for its customers.

The Obama administration’s champion for the digital TV bill was Transition Co-Chair John Podesta, whose brother’s lobbying shop, the Podesta Group, received $2.36 million dollars during the past decade from the National Association of Broadcasters.

Perhaps this better explains why Waxman and Rockefeller weren’t especially interested in publicly debating the bill’s details. Even as the president was signing the legislation, public interest groups that had supported it sight unseen were decrying its newly revealed “loopholes.”

But Democratic leaders must be held to a higher standard of openness than not backtracking on the progress of the past. They also need to act on their promises to open up Congress with new information technology.

It is shameful that legislatures in small foreign countries such as Estonia and small U.S. states such as Vermont use information technology to enhance open government far more effectively than the U.S. Congress.

Obama and Pelosi must reign in recalcitrant congressional committee chairmen who think they can continue to hide their work from the American public. If the president and Speaker won’t hold their feet to the fire, then it is their feet that should face the fire.

J.H. Snider is president of iSolon.org and author of “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: How Local TV Broadcasters Exert Political Power.”


Source: Snider, J.H., Open government rhetoric versus reality, The Washington Examiner, March 16, 2009.