Q: What shapes your views as a champion for transparency in government?
A: The most obvious answer is simple: Government functions “of, by and for the people.” Throughout my years of public service, I’ve come to several conclusions about the way Washington works. Once something gets hooked up to the federal funding pipeline, it’s nearly impossible to shut off the spigot. And when the federal treasury is paying the bills, there’s going to be zealous efforts undertaken to milk that funding stream to the last drop. As a taxpayer watchdog, I give close scrutiny to that funding stream, from defense dollars to Medicare, Medicaid and farm payments. Even though Uncle Sam is writing the check, taxpayers are footing the bill. And I’ve learned the best way to keep tax dollars from going down the drain is by weeding out wrongdoing through rigorous oversight and a strong dose of public exposure. In other words, exposing mismanagement, wasted tax dollars and government fraud to the light of day sweeps shenanigans out of the shadows. Transparency holds government accountable for the American people. That’s why I’ve worked hard to advance sunshine laws; empower agency inspectors general to do their jobs without endless bureaucratic foot-dragging; and, enact whistleblower protections that help to restore fiscal integrity to government spending programs and ensure the people’s business operates as effectively and efficiently as possible. Good governance doesn’t just happen by itself. Keeping the people’s business as transparent as possible strengthens all levels of government. From decisions made by the local school board to votes taken in the U.S. Senate, citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and how elected leaders are managing public business. The Supreme Court affirmed this basic right of an informed citizenry that it is “vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption.”
Q: What are a few of your legislative priorities to let the sun shine in on the people’s business?
A: Many of the open government efforts I lead are steered through the Senate Judiciary Committee where I serve as chairman. In fact, the first bill I steered through to final passage from the helm of this committee was the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Improvement Act of 2016. The law added new tools to strengthen public access to government records, including requiring an online portal for citizens to request public records from federal agencies. It also creates a general presumption of openness for government records. After all, transparency ought to be the norm, not the exception. Letting the sun shine in protects public health and public safety, as well as save taxpayer dollars. For example, my 1986 whistleblower amendments are the federal government’s #1 anti-fraud tool, credited with restoring more than $56 billion to the federal treasury, and counting.
Whistleblowers exposed the patient wait scandal at the Veterans Health Administration, prompting legislative reforms to better serve the health care needs of those who served our country in uniform. Investigative journalism also plays a vital role to hold government accountable. Senator Joni Ernst and I are working to stop illegal hiring practices at the VA based on a report by USA Today, for example.
Transparency strengthens the public trust in all levels and branches of government. That includes the federal judiciary. That’s why I continue working to allow cameras in the federal courts. Allowing people to see the wheels of justice at work will enhance public understanding why our courts matter and how the justice system protects the constitutional rights and rule of law in society.
I’m also working to bring sunshine and accountability to the federal rulemaking process. To that end, I introduced a bill to end the runaround by federal agencies and special interests known as “sue and settle” that effectively mutes the ability of citizens to influence the rulemaking process. Policy decisions should be made out in the open, not behind closed doors.
Q: How would better transparency reduce costs and improve quality in the U.S. health care system?
A: Iowans regularly share their concerns about the costs they pay for health care. So many people find medical billing systems confounding, with no rhyme or reason to what’s picked up by insurance and what’s paid out-of-pocket. In health care, the lack of information and inability to make price comparisons arguably prevents market forces from driving competition, lowering prices and improving quality. I’ve joined a bipartisan effort to gather input from health care providers, patient groups and industry experts as we develop legislation to improve price transparency in the U.S. health care market.
I’m also working to make hospital inspection reports public and improve transparency in opioid prescribing practices. Specifically, I want to make sure these transactions are reported in the federal database created by the law I co-wrote, the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, that requires public disclosure of payments between drug companies and doctors. I’m also working to update that law to include industry payments to nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
James Madison hit the nail on the head when he described the challenge of forming a government and “enable the government to control the governed; and….oblige it to control itself.” Through my efforts to spread sunshine across the government, I work to encourage civic participation, restore the public trust and make sure the government works for the people, not the other way around.
Sunshine Week will be observed March 11-17, 2018, coinciding with the birthdate of James Madison, on March 16.