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

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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."

3 Comments

I strongly, strongly disagree with the methodology here. As a former congressional staffer, I can guarantee that the way this pledge is worded would have a chilling effect on the exchange of ideas, which is already too constrained in Washington. For example, a moderate Republican with a strong pro-life voting record might be willing to seek common ground on a measure to make contraception more widely available. But that member would never meet with Planned Parenthood lobbyists to discuss ways to work together if a right-wing opponent could use the meeting against him or her in a primary campaign. Flip the party and issue labels and the problem remains.

I often found that my bosses and I learned more from "opposing" lobbyists than we did from those supporting our bills. In today's hyperpartisan environment, those exchanges are already too rare. This would make the problem worse.

I think it's a mistake to conflate the legislative process -- which includes all kinds of meetings and discussions that would be chilled by this effort -- with public or quasi-public campaign and fundraising appearances. You have a much better case for publicizing those appearances as opposed to a full-blown legislative schedule.

Ok, if I were a staffer, I'd understand why publicity surrounding a meeting with "the other side" might make create a bad situation for the STAFFER or the POL. But, L, who cares? They are there to do the people's business. Nobody said serving the people of Illinois was easy or comfortable work. So you get some nasty rhetoric from your opponents over a meeting with this or that group. Suck it up. Build a bridge. Deal with it. A good pol will know how to counter any attack with a calm and reasoned explanation to the voters as to why they met with Planned Parenthood, or the NRA, or whatever special interest group you care to use.

Members are there to work for Illinois. The people of the state have every right to know exactly how they spend their days. Every minute of their day when they are calling themselves a Rep. or Sen. Or are we forgetting who pays their salary?

Don't think Rummy quit just because the people are unhappy with the extended war or because we're unhappy with our dwindling freedoms due to the Patriot Act.... if that was the case, he'd have quit a year ago.

Donald Rumsfeld waited for the election results and with them, the shifting balance of power in Washington. Now that the Dems have control of the house, he can't have a blank check at his disposal. Or maybe this is a political move to make President Bush appearThis "new" guy Robert gates is absolutely not new at all, but another apple picked from the same tree. Still, it will be interesting to see if he actually has a single fresh idea or just a yes man supporting the Presidents current policies during the remainder of his term.

I've honestly become so discouraged with all this.... Between the corruption, (Please tell me how a politician is allowed to have any financialy ties to even a single government contract; i.e. Halliburton), lobbying and special interests.

Here's a paragraph from an article about Halliburton and the insider game in Washington. It's against the law to talk on a cell phone while driving a car within some city limits, such as Chicago but massive influence peddling is legal? Who are these traitors anyway?

Please read an interesting article I found located at http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0403-10.htm

"As the Center for Public Integrity has documented, this kind of thing is quite prevalent on the Defense Policy Board, where at least nine of the 30 members have ties to companies that have won more than $76 billion in defense contracts in 2001 and 2002."

I really wonder what's in store for the future of this once free and great land of ours. Why are people so oblivious to the simplest truths about what our federal government is and is not supposed to be? They have such a hard time grasping the concept that each state in our union is in fact an autonamous country of it's own!

Originally, the Governors of the states were all called Presidents! How did they lose that title? And that the fed was created by those states for the purpose of guarantying states rights. That the fed could not EVER take action above what specific powers the states allowed the fed to have. How and when did this get manipulated! It was not an accident.... Who were these traitors that usurped the CONTRACT (our Constitution)... I really get teary eyed when I think about how far off we are from the intentions and creations of the founding fathers of our United States. They left the tyranny of Great Brittain for far less taxation, oppression, misrepresentation and disinformation than we have today.

When I tell people of my dissatisfaction with our leadership and the sham known as "the two party system" i'm sometimes called an anarchist. When I explain that we were specifically created NOT as a democracy but a republic, they look at me like a deer in headlights as if I'm the one without a clue. Then I explain that our two party power base is NOT the way it was set up to be, specifically because the nature of having only two parties would dictate that their "marketing" strategies would play off of each other. The problem with this is that it would make the parties too similiar in their platforms and take away from true diversity of representation for the people.

Thanks Tanya... ya had to get me started!!! LOL (just kidding... but you know that)

So, dare I rant without a solution? My solution would get me labeled an anarchist by those in power, when in fact I pride myself in being one of the true patriots of our Republic! Those in power who control the media (I just hope and pray that they don't censor the internet) would impune my character because they certainly couldn't challange my principles. After all, we're both working from the identical blueprint!

My solution is simple...

1. Give the States back their soverignty and stick to the contract by which our country was founded!

2. Take away all powers of government not specifically authorized by the Constitution.

3. Without exception, take away all of the golden parachute benefits and pensions plans of elected public officials. (Since Congress was NEVER supposed to be a full time year-round job anyway, those elected officials would simply go back to their communities to live as the common man and woman they had been elected to represent.

4. Completely do away with all political lobbyists and lobbying. They have enabled or caused politicians to deviate from their elected purpose.

Websters Dictionary defines lobbying as the following: "to conduct activities aimed at influencing public officials and esp. members of a legislative body on legislation. 1: to promote (as a project) or secure the passage of (as legislation) by influencing public officials 2: to attempt to influence or sway (as a public official) toward a desired action.

And they call me an anarchist!

One side note: (actually, two) -

If our Republic is to continue on even remotely resembling what it was created to be by our founding fathers, it is by true education of both our Constitution, the creation of our "united" States. Also through studying the discussions and debates of our founders and our early congressional conventions.

I invite any politician to discuss or debate this. Just a word of warning, he/she better have a copy of the Constitution, Bill of Rights (1st 10 Amendments), and The Federalist Papers in hand.

Please feel free to pass this on!!

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on September 21, 2006 5:56 AM.

Jesse Jackson Jr.: Circulating petitions to run for Chicago mayor. was the previous entry in this blog.

President Clinton warns Barack Obama on the dangers of running for president ``too soon.'' is the next entry in this blog.

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