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LIBERAL & PROUD

What if sunshine laws extended to Congress?

Exclusive: Ellen Ratner suggests televising weekly caucus meetings of both parties

The Democratic control of the House has ended for now, and the Republicans will do their best to make their mark as leaders. This week they will vote to repeal the health-care plan, and next week they will attend the president’s State of the Union speech and then walk into Statuary Hall with their “spin.” The Democrats will have their “spin” as well. I have been covering politics in Washington since 1992, 19 years. As a friend of mine says, you can put a microphone in front of these guys and say “s–t” to them and they will just go on with their spin.

Both sides are so partisan that no matter what the president says in his State of the Union speech, they are going to love or disparage it, depending on the party they come from.

This week, Secretary Hillary Clinton gave a major speech in Doha, where she was tough as nails on the Middle East and their governments. Some of her speech included the words, “It is time to see civil society not as a threat, but as a partner. And it is time for the elites in every society to invest in the futures of their own countries. … Those who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever. … While some countries have made great strides in governance, in many others people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order. They are demanding reform to make their governments more effective, more responsive and more open.”

While I was cheering Secretary Clinton’s speech as “sticking it” to the non-democratic, family lead governments of the Gulf states, it struck me that much of what was being said could apply to some of the dilemmas that we also face as a nation. No, we don’t have kingdoms, but we have moved in a direction that would make our Founding Fathers blanch.

Money in politics has become out of control. Lobbyists don’t wait to speak to the president in the lobby of the Willard Hotel as they did in the mid-1800s. They give breakfasts and dinners for members of Congress, raising for them tens of thousands of dollars. No, we don’t have to pay off people at the passport office or the IRS like in some countries, but is this money in politics another example of “corrupt institutions?”

We have become so addicted to the sound bite that words have become predictable and meaningless. Anyone who doubts it should listen to the post-speech spin on Jan. 25. If you want to test this, turn off the sound on your television, look at which party a member of Congress is from and you can accurately decide what is being said. It is another example of the “stagnant political order.”

“Stagnant political order” also means rituals that don’t change and don’t move. How many times have we watched the State of the Union speech and seen each side clap when the president of their party makes a point, while the opposite party, on the opposite side of the room, just stills there stone faced? What if the proposal by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., really gained traction and the seating at the State of the Union Speech was not by party. What if Democrats and Republicans sat side by side? What if members did not look to their neighbor to see if they were clapping but reacted to the speech as Americans, not just members of their party?

Secretary Clinton also spoke about openness. I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the weekly caucus meetings of the Democrats or Republicans on Capitol Hill were televised. How would the American public react to these strategy meetings, where legislative decisions are made based on how this might impact the next election? Many states have sunshine laws. These laws make nonprofit boards open, except when personnel decisions are being made. What if sunshine laws extended to congressional party meetings?

Finally, Secretary Clinton talked about investments those governments that the elites in society must make. Part of the current House leadership’s agenda is to slash spending. Given our addiction to debt, that makes sense. However, they want to cut spending in education and transportation. Both education and transportation are investments we need to make. They don’t immediately benefit the wealthy or the powerful, but those investments make for a stronger society where all can reach the American dream. These kinds of investments allow our citizens to be transported to their dreams, either by wheels and highways or by learning skills that make us all stronger and competitive as a country.

Perhaps we need to take Secretary Clinton’s words to heart. They are as much of a warning to us as Americans as they are to the Arabs in the Middle East.

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