Slowly but surely, Congress members are waking up to the online citizenry’s ability to hold them accountable. As for the volunteer watchdogs, the reward may be more than a matter of virtue. This week, transparency advocates announced a bounty of $1000 for any person who gets their Congress member to post his or her schedule online. Bob speaks with Sunlight Foundation national director Zephyr Teachout about the “changing culture of citizenry.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It wasn't the comprehensive ethics reform they'd been pushing for on Capitol Hill, but good government groups did have something to celebrate this week. The House approved two measures to combat so-called earmarks, the pet projects slipped into spending legislation. In other words, pork, straight from the barrel. One rule change requires House members to put their names on the earmarks they propose. The other is a bill, already approved in the Senate, that would create a public, searchable Web database of all federal grants and contracts. That bill was introduced in the spring but then was secretly put on hold by a couple of senators, preventing it from a full vote.
BOB GARFIELD: Enter the citizen watchdogs. In a rare show of unity, a coalition of liberal and conservative blogs asked readers to call their senators and find out if they had imposed the hold. Volunteers managed to narrow it down to four possible culprits, at which point Republican Ted Stevens stepped forward and claimed responsibility.
The next day, Democrat Robert Byrd admitted he'd also placed a hold. The bill was quickly passed. Zephyr Teachout is the national director for the Sunlight Foundation, one of the groups who participated in the effort. She says it was instructive not just to the blogging faithful, but also to the senators themselves.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: This hadn't really been an issue that I think senators realized so many people cared about. You know, when I called my senators' offices--and other people had the same experiences--one of the things we all noticed is that the senators' offices weren't necessarily ready to take calls like this, calls from constituents asking for a position on a particular piece of legislation, let alone asking for a position on a procedural aspect of a bill.
And I think it's the beginning of a shift. I think that these kinds of campaigns will change they way that senators' offices are set up, and I think that's a wonderful thing.
BOB GARFIELD: This project was a great triumph, but there's other stuff going on, tapping the power of the collective blogosphere. The Sunlight Foundation launched a new project this week called the Punch Clock Campaign. Tell me what you're doing with it.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: With the Punch Clock Campaign, we are offering 1,000 dollars to any person who persuades a member of Congress to put their daily schedule on the Internet. We're also offering 250 dollars to any person who persuades a federal candidate, FEC-qualified federal candidate, to commit to putting their daily schedule on the Internet.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, well putting the money aside for a moment, what's the benefit of knowing legislators' daily schedules?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Well, most of us have to submit time sheets or at least tell our bosses what we're doing every day. Now with the Internet, Congress members have the same opportunity to report back to us.
This year, this Congress is supposed to spend less time in legislative session than any Congress since the infamous "Do Nothing Congress" since 1948. But that doesn't mean they're on vacation the whole time; it means that they are taking our publicly paid for time and doing other things with it. Perhaps it's preparing legislation. Perhaps it's preparing legislation with lobbyists. The difference between those two is pretty vast, as we all know.
BOB GARFIELD: Eventually, I guess, the theory is, congresspeople who would prefer not to reveal their schedules will be shamed into delivering that information. [BOTH AT ONCE]
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: [LAUGHS] Yes. And they should be. There is such a deep entrenched culture of closedness in Congress, of arcane rules that allow you to be a little bit dismissive of that public that just doesn't understand. Congress members, on their own, for the most part, are not going to voluntarily switch to a new culture. The only way they're going to do it, is if thousands of people demand it of them.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, got that, but what's with the bounty?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Anyone who can persuade their member of Congress to put their schedule on the Internet is providing an extraordinarily important public service, and we want to pay them for valuable work done.
BOB GARFIELD: There's another initiative called Congresspedia.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, tell me how that works.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Congresspedia is using the Wiki software to pull together information about each Congress member. It would seem pretty straightforward, but it's pretty hard to find detailed information about individual members of Congress in a single place.
So, again, it's another form of finding a way to do two things at once. One is to strengthen the relationship between people and their representatives by giving them basic facts about who their representative is, and creating opportunities for those people who want to get involved in political life in more ways than voting.
BOB GARFIELD: It's easy to look at these various initiatives as ways to change the behavior of our elected officials, but there's a flip side of it which I think is probably equally encouraging and that is to change the behavior of citizens in this what-does-one-vote-do culture. The idea of actually holding representatives accountable seems to suggest opportunities for actually an engaged electorate?
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Yeah. You really hit the nail on the head. Our representatives are not going to be any better or worse than we are. The past several decades, there's been a really narrow definition of what it is to be a citizen. We talk about citizenship as voting, jury duty, maybe if you're really active, writing a letter to the editor.
But that's actually an anomaly in American history. In the 1920s, five percent of Americans were presidents, not just members, presidents of their local voluntary association, like the Knights of Pythias or The Grange.
In the TV era, so much of that was lost. And now we have new mediating institutions that aren't like the Knights of Pythias, they're not locally based in the same way, but these new capacities for people to actively engage as citizens.
If we don't have a culture of citizenship, we don't have a democracy. It's really that fundamental.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Zephyr. Well, thank you so much.
ZEPHYR TEACHOUT: Sure, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Zephyr Teachout is national director for the Sunlight Foundation, a new openness in government group in Washington, DC. [MUSIC]