In Our View: Stop the Secrecy

State leaders have strong recommendations for making Legislature more transparent

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Somebody in the Washington Legislature must have missed the memo.

You know, the one about this being a new era of open government, of governmental transparency, of participatory democracy. As a policy declaration on the website for the White House says, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

While it is debatable whether the Obama Administration has lived up to that vow, it is clear that Washington’s state government has not. Last year’s legislative session was marked by efforts to keep the public uninformed and to prevent participation.

In response to that, Attorney General Rob McKenna and state Auditor Brian Sonntag are among those supporting an amendment to the state constitution proposed by the Washington Policy Center and designed to enhance the transparency of Washington’s legislative procedures. Considering the tone-deaf actions of some of our representatives, this would seem to be a reasonable solution. The amendment would:

• Require 72-hour public notification before any bill could receive a public hearing.

• Prohibit “title-only” bills that contain no text describing what the bill would do.

• Prohibit votes on final passage until the final version of a bill has been publicly available for at least 24 hours.

The thought that such a constitutional amendment would be necessary should be anathema to anybody who believes in our system of representative democracy. Yet, apparently it is needed.

Last year’s Legislature — orchestrated by the Democratic majority — routinely waived rules requiring a five-day notice before holding a bill hearing, and it often voted on bills the same day details were made available to the public.

And, in their most egregious action, lawmakers considered “ghost bills,” which contained nothing more than a title. As Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center explains, “This means that, outside of those government agency lobbyists that somehow knew about the bill before it officially existed, the public was not provided the opportunity to comment.”

And it means that the public was the loser, being left out of the process as though legislators were working on something too ghastly for the delicate eyes of the people to witness. That is inexcusable.

Despite the inherent sturdiness of a governmental system that has endured for more than two centuries, American democracy remains a fragile entity. As the White House missive correctly points out, openness will strengthen our democracy — and public participation remains a vital aspect of that strength.

Modern government all too often appears unwilling to listen, to the people, or even ask for their opinions. It all too often remains beholden to the kind of back-room, behind-the-scenes deals that betray the public trust and slowly erode the efficacy of our legislative system.

For decades, the trend has been that more and more Americans are feeling disconnected from the political process, often leading to fewer and fewer of them voting or participating in other ways. Institutionalizing increased openness in Washington’s government will not solve this problem, but it would be a step in the right direction.

That is why the amendment proposal is gathering speed. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is among those who have jumped on board, saying, “Whether at the state or national level, Americans expect their elected officials to act in a transparent way and should be provided every opportunity to participate in the legislative process.”

That doesn’t sound like too much to ask.