The devil, you say

Posted: Sep 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Full disclosure is all the rage in Congress these days. Congress makes increasing demands on the presidency for full disclosure on all sorts of matters . . . most especially on matters that embarrass the president. Further, Congress wants full disclosure of campaign contributions — made to themselves, their opponents, and groups daring to run ads close to elections. In fact, they've made it the law.

But when it comes to the machinations of Congress itself, full dislosure is not exactly the preferred method.

Oh, sure, C-SPAN gives the House and Senate floor "debates" full coverage. And a lot of committees are open to cameras and (by definition at least) audiences, too.

But some of the most important work still goes on behind closed doors. And the oldest hands in the House and Senate like it that way.

I could stop right there. Any reader of Washington political journalism could probably now supply a few examples off the top of the head, from recent history.

And I could probably just let the no-disclosure cabal off with a shrugh (combination of shrug and "ugh"): no one wants to see how sausages are made, it is said. Just so, no one really wants to see how legislation is made.

Unless, of course, one cares about law. And the republic. And where our money goes.

The old Sausage Excuse is especially apt right now, though, not because it excuses a thing, but because it brings up ground meat, and the handy distribution thereof. Yes, I'm talking about pork.

Politicians, to get elected, may try to pitch the old "Chicken in Every Pot" ploy for votes, but what really greases the wheels of modern Incumbent Democracy is Pork. By which I mean the careful distribution of money to favored donors and constituents in the easy-to-use form of special projects.

It's not wealth Congress gives away, it's Good Things To Which Surely No One Can Object.

But, after years and years of this, and especially after a record-breaking porkfest binge, Americans have begun to figure that a million here and a million there really can add up. To billions. Ultimately trillions.

Into this environment and the current Congress, enter Senators Tom Coburn and Barack Obama. They had a simple idea: disclose to both public and legislators the contents of bills that go up for vote. Require some review time. Require public listing on the Web, with full searchable features, and the tracking of the author of every section of every bill, at least as they relate to local expenditures.

Neat idea. It would allow constituents to review the work of their representatives, and of competing reps. If they don't like something their rep does, they can complain before the oops becomes whoops. And if they don't like something another rep does, they can publicize the issue and make the thing a full political squabble, making sure that the issues are actually aired — you know, allow democracy to work the way it says in the civics books.

Think of that: mistakes and bad ideas and even monstrous perversities might be withdrawn before a bill becomes a law!

You'd think something like this would be Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). But you'd be wrong. Most bills are presented so quickly for a vote, with no real time to read and deliberate, that all sorts of nonsense fills those bills, flaws those laws.

Unsurprisingly, however, this particular bill met some opposition.

Not public opposition, of course. Who could be against a bill that allowed for rational debate and the democratic bouts of tilt and joust?

The opposition was raised in secret. The bill mysteriously got nowhere. It was being held up. Anonymously.

According to Senate rules, of course. Nothing illegal. Just SOP: Silly Old Politics.

Who was responsible? Who was this masked man? Guesses flew around Washington. And the blogosphere. Even some journalists wrote about it. It became an Issue.

And then it became a Revelation. The culprit: Tom Coburn!

No, Coburn wasn't the masked man; he didn't stall his own bill. He merely squawked. He unmasked the masked man. He accused a fellow senator of delaying the bill.

This is sort of a no-no in politics. But it was in a good cause, and his opponent was a baddie anyway. And the bozo confessed. Who? No one less than Sen. Bridge2Nowhere, the real nowhere man from the 50th state, Ted Stevens of Alaska.

Of course, Stevens is all for full disclosure. How do we know? His aides said so. But at what cost?

That's the ticket: cost. Stevens worried about the expense of the bill. And oh, Stevens' hold wasn't "secret," either. He'd complained to Coburn, earlier, that he wanted proof that the bill wouldn't skyrocket in price — say, to the estimated price of one flashing divider on one lane of one of his bridges.

So why didn't Stevens attend any of the hearings that led to the bill? And why didn't he answer his own constituents' questions about his role in waylaying the bill? Stevens was on vacation, you see.

Full disclosure, gotta love it. Of course, when someone is lying through the teeth, what you get isn't exactly disclosure. Still, the end of this affair had Stevens voting along with every other senator for S. 2590, the Federal Financial Accountability and Transparency Act. This law, after some wrangling between House and Senate, will include disclosure on contracts as well as grants.

The sausage-making of modern politics will finally get some "transparency," today's buzzword for simply telling the truth as it happens, rather than waiting for memoirs from low-level flunkies. And deathbed confessions.

This is a big win, and we should all be happy. Even Ted Stevens should be happy. He may still stink of back-room cigars and sausage machines, but he's now on the side of the angels.

That is, on our side. Don't worry about him, either. He's rich enough for the switch. He's already made his millions off the system.

Why, he's been in the thick of things long enough that he could even now come out for term limits! Welcome, I say. Comrade! Brother!