Transparency of US Congress

One argument being made in the current debate to exempt Parliament from the freedom of information act is that such an exemption is not unusual. Last week, a government minister pointed out that the US Congress is not subject to the American FOI Act.

That is true but the reason behind the exemption is entirely different. The USA operates on a system of separation of powers: judiciary, legislature, executive. If Congress was covered then the executive could use the law to obtain control of congressional information.

There is not a similar separation of powers in the UK, which is why we need the Act to cover Parliament. For example in the US you could never have a member of Congress as the head of a government department in the way MPs can be ministers in the parliamentary system. Such cross-over between the legislature and executive is forbidden in the USA.

But despite being exempt from FOIA, Congress is far more transparent than the UK Parliament. Separate legislation (the U.S. Ethics in Government Act 1978) ensures publication of detailed expense claims, lobbying and assets declarations. My thanks to Ted Bridis from the Washington DC bureau of the Associated Press for this information.

You can view sample reports by visiting this link and typing the last name of a U.S. lawmaker (eg, “Obama,” or “Clinton”). These reports, for example, show what assets politicians have year on year.

Separately, the U.S. Federal Election Commission requires that candidates for federal office, including lawmakers, account for how they spend campaign contributions and also requires that political committees list the amounts and reasons for disbursements.

U.S. lawmakers generally are not required to disclose when or whether they meet with lobbyists, but there are strict limits on anything of value that can be given by a lobbyist directly as a gift. The lobbyists themselves must file reports regularly describing how much money they are paid by clients, the identities of their clients and what organisations and issues they are lobbying on (and these usually identify which congressional committees are contacted, so you can usually surmise which lawmakers are being targeted). You can access these records free at http://sopr.senate.gov/

I’m perfectly happy for Parliament to follow this American example, but my guess is they’ll opt for the exemption without the accompanying transparency.

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