Blogging Our Way To Real Democracy

Washington Times
January 1, 2007

Congressional Oversight is being touted as the primary focus of the new Congress. Every American should look forward to this reinvigoration of Congressional Oversight. We should also demand its reinvention.

The Republicans abandoned this fundamental responsibility of the Legislative Branch and the results are obvious. There are daily news stories on incompetence, scandal, and waste among both agency officials and outside contractors. No matter one's political leanings, everyone should be for monitoring how our money is spent.

Ideally, Congressional Oversight enforces legislative mandates and management standards. Oversight, when properly conducted, brings "checks and balances" back into running the government. Hearings can enlighten the public and draw attention to what is and isn't working.

This ideal is rarely achieved. It is time to fundamentally change the way oversight is conducted. A change in party control of both houses of Congress is an excellent time to explore new ways of conducting the people's business.

The traditional oversight hearing is, in essence, a theatrical event. The participants carefully script questions and answers. Many real issues are "left on the cutting room floor" as Congressional and Agency staffs work out who will participate and what will be covered. Both sides know that any surprises mean witnesses will simply say, "that is an excellent question, but it requires a written response". Members or witnesses play to the audience and occasionally orchestrate flair-ups of emotions to emphasize concern. However, while such histrionics may make the evening news, such displays rarely result in substantive changes to government operations.

A much-underreported factor in oversight is the role of lobbyists. They swarm every hearing. Most importantly, they feed questions, suggestions for witnesses, and even prepared remarks, to both sides. Sometimes this input can prove valuable. Representatives of interest groups may have specialized knowledge and can expose issues better than investigative reporters. Others, however, serve the opposite goal. These lobbyists use their expertise to help witnesses stay one step ahead of committee staff and avoid exposing the real story behind the story.

This traditional approach to oversight leaves the American public in a passive, after-the-fact, role. Most oversight hearings fail to meet the threshold of being newsworthy, so most Americans never know a hearing took place. At best, the average American can checkout a committee's website and find texts of prepared remarks or a report that is issued many months later.

It is time for this to change. The information age offers many new ways to open the oversight process to everyone. Imagine the following scenario...

The House Subcommittee on Livestock and Horticulture announces it plans to review USDA commodity programs. The subcommittee's website sets-up a blog asking people for input on what should be covered. As with any blog or Internet Forum, participants, who include committee staff and Members, can self-enforce participation by driving out inappropriate and irrelevant comments and questions. People who are obsessed with asking about "boxers or briefs" or whether someone is a Cylon will be marginalized. A unique requirement would be for all participants to identify who they are and to disclose whether or not they are in the employ or being compensated by any special interest. Agency officials and lobbyists would be welcome to join the blog discussions.

The Subcommittee's blog generates ideas on what issues should be addressed, who should be called as a witness, and what questions should be asked. In this example, farmers who actually farm could provide details on what is working and not working with the program.

The hearing takes place. It is simultaneously webcast and made available for podcast. Questions arising from the blog are asked as part of the official record.

After the hearing the blog continues with everyone reacting to the hearing, critiquing the effectiveness of the hearing and identifying follow-up questions and issues to be pursued. Some of these additional questions may be sent on to agency officials for written response.

The Subcommittee issues its report online. Once again the blog allows for public reaction and input. If enough additional concerns are raised a new hearing is scheduled and the process begins anew.

Reinventing oversight allows for real citizen participation and a real airing of issues. No longer will Americans have to wonder what is happening in Washington, as they will be an integral part of governing. An issue that may be considered too obscure even for CSPAN to run early Saturday morning would now be fully accessible for those to whom it is of central importance.

Information technology can facilitate a new age of direct democracy. It is now up to our elected officials to have the conviction to listen to citizens as much as they listen to lobbyists.

Scot Faulkner is a former Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives.

© Copyright 2007, Washington Times