Jennifer wrote this morning about the discharge petition now under consideration in the House. It would force a vote on a measure to change House rules so as to require that all but emergency bills be posted on the Web for three full days before a vote can be taken on them. Besides the article in the Hill that Jennifer referred to, John Fund of the Wall Street Journal also writes this morning on the subject.
This is an idea that is hard to argue against, at least if you want to give lip service to the notion that the federal government is a government by the people as well as of and for them. That, of course, doesn’t stop some from trying. Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, says that proposals such as this are useless because only 5 percent of Americans would be capable of understanding the legalese that acts of Congress are necessarily written in. “Anybody who thinks that is going to be transparent to the American people,” Conrad said, “is really not telling it like it is.”
Really? Since the population of the United States is more than 300 million, that means that, by Sen. Conrad’s count, there are 15 million people capable of reading, comprehending, and vetting a bill in this country. That’s quite a proofreading committee. And no small part of the power of the blogosphere is that it brings together, instantly, remarkable amounts of expertise. Just ask Dan Rather, whose 2004 hit job on President Bush was blown to smithereens on the Internet in 24 hours, let alone 72. With 15 million pairs of eyeballs scanning it, even the longest and most convoluted bill can be picked over quite efficiently.
In the 15th century, the printing press made the distribution of information cheaper by at least an order of magnitude. The number of books in Western Europe increased in the next 50 years from perhaps 50,000 to 10 million. The result was, among much else, the Reformation of the 16th century, the scientific revolution of the 17th, and the Enlightenment of the 18th. In the 19th century, the steam engine as a power source for rotary presses reduced the price again by an order of magnitude, and the mass media informing an ever-more-educated population powered the spread of democracy through the Western world. Today it is the microprocessor and the Internet that are, once again, radically reducing the cost of information and increasing the speed of its distribution by orders of magnitude.
The political establishment is not happy about that, and well they might not be. After all, the printing press greatly and permanently reduced the power of the Catholic Church. The mass media—in the form of the Times of London and a reporter named William Howard Russell—exposed the squalor, disease, and ineptitude of the British army in the Crimean War and brought down the government of Lord Aberdeen. Today the extraordinary power of the Internet to reveal the inner workings of Washington to the public is a clear and present danger to the power of the political establishment—the politicians, the lobbyists, and, by no means least, the old media.
They will fight to maintain the status quo. But it will be a losing fight, not least because they can’t actually argue against the concept without arguing that the people should butt out of the process by which the people are governed.