Tim Starks, writing in Congressional Quarterly, reports that for all its apparent openness, its televised debates and public hearings, Congress is more secretive than its reputation suggests. Closed or restricted access to legislative meetings and records may not be the rule, but such behavior is hardly viewed as an exception anymore. One telling anecdote:

In early August 2007, as the House moved rapidly to pass legislation modifying the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act before its summer recess, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed uncertain about the details of the bill they were debating. There had been intense negotiations with the White House, and only a handful of House members had been briefed on the details of the bill.

“I have some confusion over here,” Republican Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico complained to Jane Harman of California, the Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence. Harman said she had just come to the floor for a procedural vote and acknowledged that she didn’t have a copy of the latest draft. “It may be one I’ve seen,” she said, “but I’m not absolutely positive.” That moved California Republican David Dreier , the former chairman of the Rules Committee, to voice his frustration. “I think it is just absolute lunacy,” he said, “to believe that we are, at this moment, in a position to go ahead and vote upon something that we don’t know what it consists of.”

Only time will tell whether a new Administration's commitment to change in general and transparency in particular will be respected by a Congress controlled by its own party.

Now the pressure on Congress to open up is coming from President-elect Barack Obama , who during the campaign promised to run a more transparent administration — and to persuade Congress to do likewise. In a September speech outlining his plans for opening up the White House, Obama asked the leaders of his party in Congress to allow the public into the deliberations by all legislative conference committees and to disclose what industries would be expected to benefit from proposed tax breaks before Congress.

“As president,” Obama said, “I will make it impossible for congressmen or lobbyists to slip pork-barrel projects or corporate welfare into laws when no one is looking because when I am president, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public. No more secrecy."

UPDATE: Leading Congressional Republicans, for their part, are demanding information from the Bush Administration before approving more bailout funds.

Questions the leaders posed to Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke include:

  • What is your exit strategy for the government’s sweeping involvement in private business?
  • If given the authority for the additional $350 billion of TARP funding, what is your strategy for maximizing its effectiveness?
  • With regard to the various lending facilities established by the Federal Reserve since the financial crisis began, how will you provide greater transparency about loans, the collateral, the risk, the kinds of institutions involved, and the realistic expectations for repayment?