Chronicling the highs, lows, quips, quotes, comings and goings of Washington, D.C. spokesguys and spokesgals

Monday, September 18, 2006

More Sunlight on MoC Schedules? Why Hill Press Secretaries Shouldn't Veto This Idea

Wash Post's Birnbaum reports today (second item) on a new effort by a DC group called the Sunlight Network to "pay up to a total of $680,000 to people who persuade members of Congress, or prospective members, to agree to put their daily schedules on the Internet for all to see."

Per Birnbaum, the group "thinks that it is well past time that voters knew who their elected representatives were meeting with and how often. But there's no way to find out short of publishing their schedules, something that is not required and, in fact, is never done."

The effort is called the Punck Clock Campaign, and appears to be led by Zephyr Teachout, one of the leading gurus behind Howard Dean's impressive online outreach. From a look at Zephyr's blog, it's clear that Sunlight has high hopes that this effort will catch on big-time in the netroots. If that happens, how should Capitol Hill and campaign press secretaries respond? A few thoughts:

  • Congressional schedules aren't pretty. I've spent most of my career flacking on the Hill and campaigns, and the dirty little secret is that Members and candidates spend a lot of their time fundraising. What does that mean exactly? It means saving a few hours each day to make fundraising calls, travel to exotic locales for fundraising events, and attending receptions with lobbyists nearly every weeknight while Members are in DC. The average citizen would be disturbed to see how much of their elected officials' time is spent raising cash, and most flacks know that, so they'll instinctively oppose schedule disclosure. But...

  • Good things can result from citizens seeing the truth. It's a sad fact that Members and candidates have to spend so much time raising money, but that's the result of the campaign system we have today. If that disturbs citizens, they should push their elected representatives to change the system, and perhaps make changes like public financing of campaigns or other reforms. Plus...

  • The White House already does this, so why shouldn't Congress? Every meeting on the President's schedule is disclosed to the media. Meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders. Fundraising events for congressional candidates. Trips to the doctors' office for a physical. True, there is much more interest in every President's activities than there is in the average Member of Congress', but why shouldn't Congress hold itself to the same standard as the President does? After all, they all have the same boss.

  • Your boss will look good back home by embracing this early. All flacks know that there's a PR coup to be had from being the first to embrace something, and that's no different here. Just think of the glowing national and home-district press that a candidate or Member will receive from disclosing their daily schedule; the same kind of love that John McCain received aboard the Straight Talk Express. Also look at the positive reaction that's been received for the idea of disclosing appropriations earmarks. Again, most Hill press secretaries will resist this, but a few smart ones will surely see the advantage of distinguishing their bosses by demonstrating transparency.

  • Disclosure keeps you honest. Amidst all the furor over privately-funded travel for Congress, congressional staff today know that they shouldn't accept a trip offer unless they're prepared for the world to know they went on that trip. In many cases those fact-finding trips are easy to justify, but in others the rationale is less clear. But regardless, knowing that a schedule will be disclosed will be yet another incentive for Members and candidates to avoid any behavior that would reflect poorly on them.

  • Sharing your schedule helps you build a following. Netroots candidates know this well - by telling the world where you'll be and when, you make it easy for your supporters to show up. Howard Dean's '04 campaign proved it. True, there's always the risk that disclosuing your schedule will make it easier for your opponents' supporters or a tracker to show up and shadow you, but that downside can be easily offset by the upside of mobilizing your supporters more easily.

  • Remember, you work for the people. With time, it's easy as a Hill or campaign staffer to start to feel a sense of entitlement, or to become a bit drunk with the power you have. Which makes it all the more important to have frequent reminders of who you're working for.

ADDENDUM: One more point. Unless I'm mistaken, Members' schedules are already accessible to reporters who file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. In fact, plenty of news exposes have been written using FOIAs. So if this info is FOIA-able anyway, why tick off reporters who are going to get their hands on the info anyway?

UPDATE: Apparently I am mistaken about FOIA (it happens often).


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Somewhat shockingly, I recently learned that Congress is not subject to FOIA. So sadly, it isn't FOIA-able at all -- though if we can come up with other legal theories, I'm all ears!


Zephyr Teachout, Sunlight

9/18/2006 08:01:00 PM


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