In 1972, Ralph Nader published the book Who Runs Congress? The paperback retailed for $1.95, and was to be the first of several publications by Nader’s Congress Project, a rag-tag group of students, volunteers, and writers. A better title for the book might have been Who Ruins Congress: its pages overflowed with acts of bribery, corruption, and incompetence allegedly committed by members.
The Congress Project attempted to investigate every member of Congress, eventually producing extended profiles of every senator and member of the House of Representatives. Many of the profiles ran in local newspapers before the 1972 elections; many of their authors, including James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and David Ignatius, went on to meaningful careers in political journalism. Along with its publications, the Congress Project lobbied for transparency in the legislative branch. It fought to open Congressional committee meetings to the public and published the committee votes of members.
The Congress Project also inspired one of Ralph Nader’s major talking points on the need for citizen activism: Congress, Nader argued, needs to be watched. Millions of Americans pass their time watching birds when they should be watching Congress. Nader hoped to make Congress-watching as popular a pastime as bird-watching.
I thought of Nader’s aspirations two weeks ago as I sat in the gallery of the House of Representatives. The House was marching through the final amendments of the Farm Bill, one of the country’s most sweeping pieces of legislation. It regulates everything from farm subsidies and agricultural research to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Farm Bill comes before Congress every five years, and I wanted to watch the final hours of debate.
There’s been a lot of interest in the nitty-gritty details of democracy these days. Millions held their breath as the Supreme Court announced its rulings, glued to CNN and refreshing SCOTUSblog. Thousands watched the Texas Tribune’s live-stream of the epic filibuster by Wendy Davis on the floor of the Texas Senate. While the numbers haven’t quite risen high enough to match the hoards of birders in this country, there’s an increasing desire to witness political history as it happens. Read More