Category talk:Transparency in the U.S. Congress

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This page is a work-in progress to document all aspects of how transparent the operations of the U.S. Congress are. It is a category page because there will eventually be several sub-articles, all belonging to this category. This page will eventually be largely links to those pages. --Conor Kenny 22:53, 30 Jul 2006 (EDT)

Contents of the old "transparency" page: Transparency


Transparency in government refers to the act of being able to know exactly what is taking place in the governmental arena. Pertaining to congress, transparency refers to the ability to find out about congressional actions. This can be achieved through various means which make this information accessible. This includes campaign finance and voting records, open legislative hearings, public calendars, and other reform methods not yet available.

Aspects of Transparency

The problem complicating transparency is that congress members may be secretive about their actions involving their campaign finance, lobbying, earmarks, and wealth. Though these aspects are an important part of a congress member’s life, a congress member may find themselves in a scandal because she or he misused funds generated by them. They their staff, family, financial supporters may have profited politically and/or financially from abusing these aspects.

Campaign Finance

Campaign finance is the act of funding a politically campaign [1]. Sometimes, however congress members misappropriate campaign funds for themselves, staff, family members, or financial donors and it these funds that often go undocumented. Congress members may misuse:

  • Funds from Campaign contributions
  • Funds from Campaign expenditures
  • Connections to charities and/or nonprofits
  • Contributions to their leadership PAC
  • Expenditures by their leadership PAC

Members who have been accused of doing so include:


Lobbying is act of convincing the government or other politicians to create and or implement public policy on behalf or a particular client. Often special interest groups and major corporations hire professionals charged with getting congress members to write and pass policies to benefit their organization. Since 2000, there has been a recent focus on congressional lobbying scandals. One of the most well documented lobbying scandals is the Jack Abramoff. This scandal involves the congressmen listed below.

Earmarks and the act of Pork Barreling

Earmarks are funds quietly placed into bills for a project in a congress member’s district. Many congress members support earmarks; the issue is whether or not the funds used in the earmark are wasteful. If they are wasteful, the funds may go undocumented and this makes it harder for constituents to find out where their tax dollars are going. [[2]].

Pork Barreling, referred to as wasteful spending, is the act of earmarking funds for a particular district. [3]

Congress members making the news about controversial earmarks include the following:

Personal Issues

Transparency can be clouded because of a congress member's personal expenses. These include a congress member’s leisure and legal expenses. For example, The American Prospect reported that Rep. Rick Santorum used money from his Political Action Committee for groceries, fast food restaurants, and trips to Starbucks and local Washington, D.C. coffee shops. Though Rick Santorum's-'s PAC filed reports showing his expenses, the public still may have a hard time disovering what exactly their congressmember is doing with their money.

Congress members may also try to hide their actions that benefit immediate family members like spouses, children and siblings. For example Rep. Rick Santorum (R-PA) was criticized for using his Pennsylvania address to receive funding for his children to go to school in Pennsylvania, instead of the address of their current address in Leesburg, Virginia.

A congress member may also accept bribes, invest in real-estate property, take out loans, or invest in stock or sale stock in an effort to increase their wealth. The issue with this comes about, when a congress member fails to document their actions, which some have done.

For example, Rep. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was fined by the Federal Elections Commission when he failed to report a $1.44 million loan taken out by Frist 2000, Inc. and his campaign Political Action Committee, Bill Frist for Senate, Inc. Other congress members involved in real-estate investment, bribes and loans include

Another problem involving transparency stems from a congress member’s personal remarks. Congress members make comments “off the record” which go undocumented and unpublished. These comments can be made anywhere and to anyone . They may be made at private political fundraisers or simply to a colleague and may evidence their actions in congress. Examples of remarks which a congress member may not want their constituents to hear include the following:

  • Rep. Jim Moran's (D-VA) following remark regarding earmarks:

"When I become chairman [of the House Appropriations Subcommittee], I'm going to earmark the s--out of it [4]

  • Sen. Jim DeMint's statement reported by the Greenville News that he did not believe that openly gay people and single mothers who live with their boyfriends should be educators.[5]

Transparency and the public

There are tons of sources which document the actions of congress. These actions are displayed in public records, many of which are required to be made public by law. Some examples of public records of disclosures that must be published include voting records, campaign finance records, and personal wealth records.

Below is a public disclosure chart provided by The Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal which provides sources to public information involving transparency.

Voting Record

One way to find out what your congressman or congresswomen is doing is to examine their voting record. Their voting record presents a wealth of information on the congressmen or congresswomen. Among the information, it shows their ideology, their personal beliefs, their values, and what colleagues they support.

Problems occur in a congress member’s voting record when the following occur:

  • He or she decides to break party lines and votes against legislation supported by their party
  • He or she votes against popular opinion
  • He or she votes for a bill that is opposed by a majority of their constituents
  • He or she votes for legislation that may benefit them personally, but may hurt others

Transparency can also be reduced in one’s voting record when the congress member is accused of “flip-flopping” (changing their vote usually to appease voters or their party). When congress members drastically change their position on an issue it causes critiques to speculate about their true beliefs. Many congress members have been accused of “flip flopping.” These congress members include

  • Sen. George Allen (R-VA) who is accused of “flip flopping” on stem cell research
  • Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY.) who is accused of “flip flopping” on the Iraq War.

Often during important times, such as during a political campaign, the media may hear about how a congress member voted against popular opinion. An example of this is when Virginia media made it public that Senator George Allen (R-VA.) voted against the Martin Luther King Holiday when he was an elected official in Virginia. When this occurs, congress members may pressure the media to keep quiet. Non-the less, these records are made available by such sources as THOMAS (Library of Congress) and Project Vote Smart.

Campaign Finance Record

One of the most important public disclosures which can help transparency is a congress member’s campaign finance record. Campaign finance of congressional members is monitored by the Federal Elections Commission and is made available by many sources as notified in the chart below.

Like their voting record, one’s campaign finance record shows a wealth of information on candidate. Their campaign finance record can show all aspects of who is supporting them financially which may include businesses, individuals, politicians, industries, and PACs. Their campaign finance record also show how much money they raised in their campaign and can show it in comparison to their challenger(s). Also, their campaign finance record shows their expenses and expenditures.

Like their voting record, a congress member’s sponsored amendments illustrate what issues they support. For example the McCain-Feingold sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-NV.) and Russ Feingold show that they support campaign finance reform. Usually, congress member will sponser legislation in support of their voting base. For instance, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) introduced "The Ten commandments Defense Act" in 2002 that would have given permission for the Ten Commandments to be displayed in government buildings.

A congress member's sponsered piece of legislation may also show that they support pork barreling. Their sponsered legislation may be comprised of earmarks that may beneficial to them or someone close to them, like a family member or financial donor.

Public disclosure reference chart

Below is a chart provided by the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal. The chart shows what congressional information is disclosed, how hard it is to find it, and where it is.

Measures of Reform


There are a host of laws which have been enacted to help make knowledge of congressional actions more accessible. Some laws include:

  • Federal Campaign Finance Laws [6]
  • Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 [7]
  • Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 [8]
  • The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995 [9]

Due to the increase of congressional scandals many people and organizations have introduced reform measures. Here is a list of popular reform measures

  • Official public calendar
  • Documentation of meeting (topics, bill)
  • Tighter campaign finance laws
  • Better documented legal expenses, funds, and contributions