Turn on the Lights, Congress

At a time when Americans enjoy televised C-SPAN access to floor debates and public hearings on Capitol Hill, more and more of the real dealmaking in Congress is conducted in secret.

Take, for instance, deals struck between the House and Senate when trying resolve differences between similar bills passed by both chambers. Much of the work of these "conferences" is done behind closed doors. The secrecy does not allow for public input. And without knowing why compromises are made, it's difficult to hold legislators accountable.

An example: In 1997, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate minority leader Trent Lott secretly inserted a $50 billion tax break for tobacco firms into a conference bill. It was cut only after public outrage.

Reaching compromises in writing the nation's laws should be an open process. Publicly elected officials owe a public discussion to their constituents and to the American people. They should have the courage to stand behind their convictions.

Accountability in Congress is as important as accountability in business or education. The proverbial smoke-filled back rooms should be given an air of openness.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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