"Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." --Thomas Jefferson
The principle of "informed consent" is well established in American law and life. Whether preparing to undergo surgery or take out a loan, consumers have a right to full disclosure of the risks and consequences associated with the transaction. Only after the consumer has reviewed such information and been informed of the relevant facts can he be deemed to have given his consent to proceed.
Imagine, then, going to the hospital for major surgery, only to be told by your doctor that you are not smart enough to understand the implications of your operation, and that even if you were, he doesn't want to take the time to explain them to you before you go under the knife. Or suppose you asked your local car dealer for a test drive of the vehicle you were considering purchasing before you actually signed on the bottom line and he refused, accusing you of stalling and denying you an opportunity to test the merchandise before you bought it. Only a fool would continue under such circumstances.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the business of the American people transacted by our representatives on Capitol Hill, the public is embracing just this kind of treatment. For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have trampled on the principle of transparency by ramming legislation through the Congress without giving the American people time to read it. And if certain lawmakers have their way, that's exactly what will happen with the current health care reform effort.
Last week, Republicans in both houses of Congress attempted to shed some much needed light on the legislative process at a crucial time in our nation's history. An amendment quickly defeated in the Senate Finance Committee would have required the health care bill to be fully written, evaluated by the Congressional Budget office, and posted on the Internet for a minimum of 72 hours before lawmakers could cast their votes. A similar proposal introduced in the House of Representatives would require a 72 hour window for public review of all legislation being considered for passage.
Democrats—architects of the legislation in question—are widely opposed to such measures. Despite the fact that the American people are facing a massive overhaul of 20% of the national economy, legislative poohbahs insist that they do not have the time and we do not have the intelligence to engage in such a process. According to Senator John Kerry, the legalese in which Congressional legislation is written would be unintelligible to the majority of the American public. Max Baucus insists that the time required to post legislation online and the 72 hour waiting period would cause an unacceptable delay in addressing the healthcare crisis threatening America.
Perhaps someone should remind these gentlemen that America is a democratic republic. The representatives on Capitol Hill are sent there by the people to represent the interests of the people, and they are accountable, first and foremost, to the people. Thomas Jefferson stressed the relationship between an educated citizenry and the preservation of liberty because he understood that a government which is not accountable to its people quickly devolves into tyranny. The American people have a vested interest in knowing what kinds of laws are being passed by their representatives. After all, the people have to live by those laws—even if the members of Congress do not. The fact that President Obama and his Democrat allies in Congress have dug themselves into a hole with artificially imposed deadlines and unrealistic expectations does not negate the importance of transparency and accountability. If anything, the attempts to avoid transparency and fast track the massive health care bill auger for more—not less—scrutiny and review.
As for the notions that Congressional legislation is too voluminous to post online and too complex for the average American voter, neither argument holds water. In the 21st Century, 1000 pages can be scanned, transported, and uploaded onto the World Wide Web with minimal effort. Furthermore, the internet blogosphere makes it possible to harness the intelligence and analytical expertise of countless scholars, pundits, and experts, thereby making even the most complicated of documents accessible and readily understood.
Regardless of how inconvenient the process of transparency may seem to our august representatives in Washington, legislative "sunshine" policies should be embraced, and—with exceptions for sudden emergencies or matters of national security—should be established as standard business practice for elected officials at every level of government. Imagine how this one simple step would diminish the influence of the smoke-filled room, the quid pro quo, and the undue influence of special interests.
The most likely motive that an elected official has for opposing transparency in government is that they have something to hide. If members of Congress want to shed their reputation as the least trustworthy of government officials in America, they need to realize that the time for politics as usual is over, and the time for transparency is now.