Truth in lawmaking

June 19, 2006|By CHARLES KOLB

WASHINGTON -- Congress responded to the recent corporate accounting, financial and governance scandals by imposing new legal obligations on publicly traded companies.

One of the most noted provisions of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley legislation requires chief executive officers and chief financial officers to certify quarterly that they have personally reviewed their companies' earnings reports and that the financial information they contain is accurate.

These certifications are considered vital in assuring the investing public that they can rely on companies' accurate, transparent reporting before they make important financial decisions. Failure to certify, or making inaccurate statements, can be punished severely by fines, criminal penalties or both.

For much of the last year, the spotlight has shifted to the openness and transparency of congressional decision-making. One congressman has admitted to accepting outright bribes; the former House majority leader is under indictment and faces a criminal trial for allegedly improper campaign fundraising in Texas; an unprecedented number of legislative earmarks costing billions of dollars are now inserted into legislation with little or no congressional debate; and the unfolding scandal of lobbyist Jack Abramoff highlights the symbiotic relationship of a Washington cottage industry that involves members of Congress, lobbyists and corporate America.

In the wake of the corporate scandals, the public - and Congress - demanded greater accountability from our public companies. Now, the public is directing similar accountability questions toward Congress:

Why is the structural federal budget deficit out of control?

Why was last year's transportation bill riddled with over 6,000 "earmarks," which included that notorious "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska?

Why is it that nearly every year - much to the professed shock of members of Congress - items appear in legislation that were inserted by staff at the request of special interest groups that were unknown to the elected members?

With the typical congressional work-week falling between midday Tuesday and midday Thursday, how can members adequately carry out their legislative deliberations and oversight duties?

Why are some bills numbering into many hundreds of pages presented to members of Congress within a day or a few days of a scheduled vote?

How many members have the time or take the time to read the bills on which they vote?

A vote by a member of Congress can have implications - positive and negative - that are far more consequential for the country than a CEO's quarterly earnings report. The requirement that chief executive officers and chief financial officers read, understand and publicly certify their reports is intended to ensure transparency, accuracy and accountability in the nation's equity markets. Shouldn't these principles also apply to the nation's legislative process?

What if members of Congress were subject to a similar obligation before they cast their votes? We pay members of the House and Senate $165,200 a year. Members of the leadership earn even more.

Is it asking too much that members of Congress know what it is they are voting for or against? In many instances when votes are cast, representatives from the whips' offices greet members at the door with the leadership's recommendation on how to vote. This process can hardly be called "deliberative."

So here is a simple, Sarbanes-Oxley-type solution that Congress should impose on itself as a means of promoting accountability and reassuring a highly skeptical public: When a member votes on final legislation, the representative must certify publicly that he or she has read the legislation in question and understands what is in the bill.

With this approach, members could no longer claim they were surprised by what is in a bill. Legislation likely would be shorter and drafted with greater clarity. Special interest "perks" or earmarks would be more readily identified and scrutinized.

Members are now routinely monitored for their attendance at roll-call votes, but are they really serving the American people when they haven't even read the bill on which they are voting?

The implementation would be relatively simple. Members of the House, who vote electronically by cards, would have two cards that could be inserted when voting. One card handles the "yes" or "no" vote and a second would certify that the voting member read and understood the legislation in advance of casting a vote.

In the Senate, where the roll is called orally, senators could indicate verbally when voting whether they had read the bill and understood it. Both "votes" would be reported in the Congressional Record. Of course, a member could still vote "yes" or "no" without also making the public certification as to his or her familiarity with the bill, but doing so might raise political questions (and competition) back home.

Enforcement would be automatic through instant public accountability and greater transparency. The public's trust of Congress also would improve. There would be no need for fines or criminal penalties. The voters could readily impose their own sanctions, if necessary, the next time they enter the voting booth.

Charles Kolb, who served in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, is president of the Committee for Economic Development. The views expressed are his own. His e-mail is charles.kolb@ced.org.

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