CongressLine by The American Town Meeting

Paul Jenks,

Much has been written about the divided state of the American electorate, driven by sharp partisan bickering and attacks. I have heard a number of explanations, ranging from the increasing number of media outlets and bloggers to the ineffective role of political parties. From my perspective, all of them may be the cause, but I would also add the ever-increasing volume of primary source Congressional documents that I have discussed in previous articles, entitled GW Hot Docs.

Now before you quickly come to some conclusion that I am a one-note guy, thinking only of these GW Hot Docs, this article is an important continuation on the topic of GW Hot Docs as a conceptual revolution. The other articles were merely trying to get you to understand these materials. These documents are playing a role, arguably good and bad depending on your perspective, in a transformation of the Republic.

Partisan bickering and invective is not new. Media interference in shaping of the political world is not new. Congressional documents have been produced since Congress existed. Government documents since Babylon are not new either. What is new is the technology. Of course since you are reading this on an Internet web site, you are not surprised. It is only in the past 20 years that such things even existed. It is only in the past 25 years that the desktop personal computer you are using to access the Internet has existed. In college in 1980, no one in my fairly elite university owned a computer and all term papers were written on the typewriter or by hand. Even the copying machine — while older, has only started ubiquitous use in this 25 year time period.

This new technology has pried loose many Congressional documents from their dusty files and has created documents that never existed. A Congressional staffer during the Carter administration could have typed something up on his or her trusty IBM typewriter and went to some common location and made photocopies of it. A staffer during the Nixon administration could have made a copy somewhere, but probably used carbon paper. This is not the world for distributing documents broadly, let alone creating new ones.

American history is full of purloined letters and documents, making it into the newspapers or public domain. Congress has been producing reports since at least 1789. But access to these has always been limited to small groups even within Congress itself and a few well-placed Congressional reporters. Only occasionally did they filter out with much controversy and publicity. The historical rarity and secrecy of these documents, now increasing available, is part of their allure today.

I now see several hundred seemingly private letters from Members of Congress every month. I can read an equal number of reports. I see many bills in their draft form, continuously, every day. I read Congressional staff analysis; they even summarize bills and committee reports for me. I read the Congressional Research Service reports like they were box scores in the morning newspaper. Twenty years ago I was amazed that I could read a bill online; today I can follow the details of decision making in Congress while I lie on the beach in Bimini. Now think about the implications of this.

Civil liberties groups, librarians and “open government” advocates are rejoicing! Everything is in the open, open for debate, critique. Elected representatives are watched and corrected, chastised and supported continuously. The smoke filled rooms are now smoke free. Cronyism, corruption, back room deals are exposed to the sunlight of public inspection. Mainline media groups are no longer the arbiters of news; anyone whether on K Street or Boise can see what is really happening. The American Republic is moving into one giant New England Town Meeting. Everyone knows the others little secrets, nothing is private, and all is seemingly known.

The other side of this coin is gridlock. Political and ideological positions are monitored and anyone, no matter how well informed or ill-informed plays a role. The curmudgeons of yesterday now are today’s arbiters of the debate. Decision-making in a closed document world depended strongly on interpersonal relationships, trade-offs and even persuasion. I watched a group of Senators debating the John Bolton (UN Ambassador) nomination react in amazement when debate in Committee actually changed a few Senator’s minds. That doesn’t happen much these days.

Whether this ever-increasing access to decision documents, such as those found in GW Hot Docs, is good or bad is an interesting debate. Whatever the true impact of the documents it will not affect the continued access to them. The genie is out of the bottle.

One type of document that illustrates this point is the Congressional Research Service (CRS) report. Several thousand of these reports are written every year on every imaginable topic, limited only by the creative inquisitiveness of the Members of Congress. Washington, DC insiders have long known of them and periodically got copies from friendly sources on the Hill, but they were closely held, accessible only from the Congress and its staff. Now, ordinary, non-connected, non-elite individuals can read them every morning.

Librarians rejoice! At last these publicly funded documents, written by government employees, the principal research advisors to our elected members of Congress are available to everyone! A person in Des Moines could call CRS, complaining of perceived errors or faulty political opinions, or slant or outrage as frequently as they do their member of Congress. The Congressional Budget Office, once a venerable organ of Congress experienced a similar opening of their reports. Now they are frequently accused of bias. Of course none of these excellent organs of Congress include as their mission to write reports for the general public, they write reports for Congress.

I am a bit ambivalent about this newfound availability of information. The town meeting junkie in me rejoices, but the sober political science geek is concerned and wonders how anything can get done in Congress. This morning I woke up in Washington, DC, but really I am in a small town hall meeting in Maine correcting a Senator on global nuclear proliferation treaties in Congress and the elderly lady down the street on a new dog leash ordinance. The town meeting continues all day long.

The American Republic is becoming more democratic, perhaps more truly democratic. The critique of democracy going back to Plato is coming closer to relevance than it has ever been in the past. The representative democracy in Washington is all about trading, one vote on one topic in exchange for support on another; the individual representatives determine the priorities. With the new openness, these priorities are more closely and much more quickly examined. Documents, drafts, and reports put the representative in the middle of whirlwind. The individual citizen, particularly represented on issues by a several thousand groups, is now the representative. It used to be we hoped our elected representatives used wisdom and judgment when reading the documents. Will the new citizen representatives do the same?

Primary source documents – letters, reports, drafts of bills and amendments provide a view of the legislative process to an audience that they were originally not intended. As a result the documents themselves have changed. In some cases the new recipients have a better perspective than the old guard in Washington, DC, in other cases they mobilize forces that can tie the Republic into knots. Welcome to the American Town Meeting.

Posted in: CongressLine, CRS Reports