Making transparency into a reality
There's been a lot of confusion this year over the difference between "things that fall under the category of government transparency" and "things that make government more transparent." For instance: Forcing the Senate clerk to read thousands of pages aloud does not make the government more transparent. Having C-SPAN film negotiations over the health bill may be a good idea, but it just means there will be a public event called "negotiations over the health bill," not a real window into the negotiation process.
But there are things that actually make the government more transparent. Posting the text of bills and amendments online is a start, for instance, The problem is that it only helps a small community of trained elites. Legislative text is impossible to read. But the next step forward is obvious, and Jon Walker writes it up this morning (alongside arguments to increase congressional staff and abolish the filibuster, both of which would also be good ideas):
The Senate Finance Committee has a tradition of writing every bill in understandable, plain English, then converting it to legislative language right before the committee vote. Every committee in Congress should copy this tradition by having every bill published in a plain language and legislative language version without in discrepancy in meaning. (Full disclosure: I believe Ezra Klein was the first person I heard suggest this idea, and I think it is fabulous.)
Democrats have made a point of publishing bills 72 hours before the vote, but what good is there in making a bill public if only one in every hundred thousand Americans can understand it. Having a plain language version of the bill would help greatly expand the pool of people who understand pending legislation. It would benefit congressional members not on the specific committee, journalists, and regular Americans who might care passionately about a subject. It could also help quickly stop nonsense rumors like “death panels.”
Big companies with high paid lobbyists already understand complex legislative language in a bill, having a copy of the bill written in plain English would put journalists and grassroots activists on a slightly more even footing. No law is needed to make this reform. Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid could effectively implement it tomorrow, and I would like to see it made part of a promise for even greater transparency in the 112th Congress.
I doubt I'm the first to have this idea, but it's still a good idea. To see the difference, compare the plain-English version (pdf) of Max Baucus's health-care bill to the legislative text (also pdf). Also notice that the page-count quadruples, or worse.
I don't begrudge anyone the right to use transparency as a partisan cudgel. There's no more bipartisan tradition than accusing the other party of secrecy and demanding all manner of disclosure and openness that you would never expect of yourself. But that shouldn't distract us from making the change that would lead to actual transparency and understanding of the legislative process.
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