Like many Americans, I feel pretty disconnected from our legislature as it relates to their day to day activities. Unless you’re a media representative and stake out a place at your state’s capitol building, you probably miss a lot of the “sausage making” that is the process of creating laws. There is CSPAN of course, who broadcasts legislative hearings for example, but unless you’re tuned in 24/7 you will still miss a lot of conversations among congressional representatives. At the federal level, people feel even more disconnected from political leaders, and they from us (by U.S. I just mean normal people-just go with it).
The media has sought to fill in this gap in increasingly absurd and potentially dangerous ways. Fox News reports only on good things thatRepublicans do, and bad things that Democrats do. CNN reports only on good things that Democrats do and bad things that Republicans do, all the way down the line. The questions being asked are necessarily shaped by the political agenda of the media outlet, but more importantly by ratings, which bring them money. So, instead of focusing on prescient issues like whether or not climate change is affecting crop yields, or the growing rate of unvaccinated children,we get a non-stop feed of stupid irrelevant things that congress has said or that Trump has tweeted.
The product of this reporting environment is that we feel angry and disconnected from our congressional leaders. We feel particularly frustrated at the lack of resolution from points “our side” has made against the other. Republicans will only interview with conservative outlets, and Democrats will only interview with liberal outlets. In neither situation will the media press the congressperson on points the other party has made, instead soft-balling questions or framing the issue in an advantageous way. The result of this process is that neither side feels as though their points were acknowledged by the other, and the frustration, anger, and bitterness continues to grow.
I started thinking about this dynamic because of the HouseJudiciary Committee hearing where the CEO of Google had to answer to both parties about Google’s algorithms. This was a good opportunity for both sides to address a very important issue: the role of Google in the lives of ordinaryAmericans; how they search for information, view that information, and how that information gets spread. Despite some honest sprinklings of true thought, most of the hearing was the Republican side charging that Google was discriminating against conservatives. At one point, Steve King, the Republican from Iowa,asked Google CEO Pichai why his granddaughter saw a negative ad about him on her iPhone. Pichai responded that the iPhone was made by another company, andDemocrats laughed.
What would have been great, while Republicans were making accusations about liberal bias within Google’s algorithms, were a citizen there who was experienced in IT, that could ask the Republican congressman what their level of experience in these matters were, where they go their evidence from,and to correct inaccuracies. Are you the right person to be asking questions of the Google CEO, or do you have trouble sending text messages? Of course, this was the committee’s hearing to question the CEO, and not the other way around,but maybe it’s time to turn the tables. In that spirit, I give you:
The Reverse Congressional Hearing
Once a year, each party will select a panel of six individual citizens, not associated with any party apparatus. They can be subject matter experts in their field, advocates for a certain policy, or maybe a retired veteran. They cannot have been paid by either party, formally or informally during the last 2 years. These twelve individuals, six from each party, will select three representatives from the house to answer questions. The idea here is that the parties select a representative sample of their constituency, but don’t overtly force those participants into selecting certain reps or asking certain questions. Citizen interviewers should be selected based on their knowledge and experience of issues.
Each side will have two hours to interview the three representatives. While not under oath, the representatives are expected to give a good-faith effort to answering the questions to the best of their knowledge.The six citizen interviewers must submit specific topics of inquiries to the three representatives no later than one week prior to the hearing. For example,a citizen may want to question why a rep voted no on a water quality bill, or maybe ask why they voted against a school funding measure.
Because the hearings may get heated, due to the implied adversarial nature of its structure, moderation and enforcement of conduct should be held in high regard. A hearing moderator will be selected by joint decision between the house majority leader and house minority leader. This moderator will ensure that questions directed at representatives are closely tied to the pre-submitted topics. The moderator will also have the power to remove a citizen interviewer, but only on the grounds of personal attacks, uncivil conduct, racial slurs and the like.
Prior to the hearing, at the same time the interview topics are submitted, interviewer groups will submit a substitute representative. The citizen panel may, only by unanimous consent, elect during the session to substitute one representative for another. The topics cannot change as a result of this substitution, and session time does not pause during the substitution(the clock keeps running). This should be viewed as a way to replace an obstinate or unhelpful representative, rather than simply an opportunity to interview an additional representative.
The goal of this hearing is to provide a more direct vehicle for congressional accountability and transparency. While a Republican certainly has to answer to her constituency concerning votes and policy proposals, she doesn’t have to answer in the same way to Democratic voters in her district.This format could provide a bridge between parties, a concrete and immediate pressure to respond to members of different political stripes. The final obstacle would be to prevent this from becoming a mud-slinging, cheap point scoring, media circus. We have enough of that and I think citizens need to take matters into their own hands to get information on our political bodies.