Interview with John Wonderlich, Organizer of the Open House Project

On September 17, 2007, Emily Feldman conducted an email interview John Wonderlich, Program Director of the Sunlight Foundation and organizer of the Open House Project on the Open House Project’s recommendations for transparency in Congress. The interview is below.

EF: In the Open House Project report, you note that the Senate recently adopted rules to require committees to post online verbatim records of their proceedings. Do you think committees will resist or welcome this change? Do committees have the resources to enact this change?

JW: On the whole, I think committees will welcome the change. While some may be frustrated by the effort inherent in any increased disclosure requirement, committees serve a very public function, gathering expertise and knowledge from various stakeholders. Keeping records of transcripts is already required by Senate rules, so required public posting online adds little additional burden, especially given the potential public benefits. Since most political work is done with an eye to the popular discourse, committees generally welcome public exposure. The increase in resources necessary for prompt online posting is minimal, since transcripts are already required to be kept.

EF: One of the common criticisms of increasing video recordings of members of Congress is that they will start pandering to the camera to make themselves look good or to project a certain message. Do you think this argument is valid?

JW: It makes sense that Congress adopts new technology cautiously. A huge deliberative body so based on legal precedent and tradition should be able to adapt to new ideas with confidence, and concerns around increased exposure should be considered carefully. Disclosure can drastically realign incentives, and increasing disclosure requirements can be a blunt instrument, giving lobbyists a venue to advertise their fundraising prowess, or lawmakers a chance to showboat on camera.

The Internet will continue to promote comprehensive legislative disclosure, and this will, in turn, empower public scrutiny. Fears about introducing too much scrutiny into democratic processes, however, usually fail to take an important point into account: increased public access to Congress will also affect public expectations, promoting exactly the kind of information consumer who would resent empty grandstanding, and would expect lawmakers to engage with legislative substance.

EF: How have the Open House Project’s recommendations been received by Congress? Any major point of resistance? Any idea that has been enthusiastically endorsed?

JW:Our recommendations have been received more warmly than I had anticipated. Many staffers with technical and communcations responsibilities have seen our recommendations as opportunities to develop new outreach strategies. I’ve also recognized that transparency reform tends to enhance IT resources for congressional staff, so in a sense we’re natural allies. The leadership of both parties have been welcoming of our input.

The idea of RSS feeds for committees has been enthusiastically endorsed. I’m hoping that can be put together soon. Proposals that require significant funding are more difficult.

EF: What can citizens do to encourage greater transparency from their legislators? From Committees?

JW: The best way to encourage congressional transparency is probably to become an empowered information consumer. Being familiar with congressional information sources that are relevant to issues you’re concerned with gives you an idea of what realistic reforms might look like. Committees and legislators are often very responsive to constituents who are looking for information. It’s probably satisfying to see people pay attention to the issues they’re working on, especially when it isn’t a front-page news item.

Beyond that, if you’ve got ideas about how Congress promote better public access to legislative information online, we’d love to hear your input through