And when there’s a bill that ends up on my desk as president, you, the public, will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.
When candidate Obama spoke that line on the campaign trail (starting around 1:00 in the video), it was met with a hail of applause. This same promise was featured on his campaign web site. He laid out a vision for a transparent, responsive government.
The interesting thing about this particular promise—what made it a rarity in campaigns—was that it was measurable. We could learn by watching whether President Obama would deliver on this promise.
So I did.
Over the last three-and-a-half years, I’ve taken note of when Congress has presented bills to the president, when they’ve been posted (accessibly) on Whitehouse.gov, and when the president has signed them.
But enough chatter. How has the president done on a simple, straightforward campaign promise that would make the government more open and transparent?
The current tally is…(drumroll please)…
just under two-thirds compliance!
As the summary table below illustrates, the Obama White House almost completely disregarded the Sunlight Before Signing promise in the first year. In fact, it was the president’s first broken promise. Since then, the president has improved, but not by so much that people have come to rely on Sunlight Before Signing to “know what [their] government’s doing.”
|Number of Bills||Emergency Bills||Bills Posted Five Days||%|
Here’s part of why they don’t rely on it: We learned through study that the important bills tend notto get five days of public review before the president signs them. The ones that almost always do are the bills to rename post offices, change the borders of national parks, and such.
When the president promised Sunlight Before Signing, it was possible the strict adherence to his pledge from the first days of his presidency would have encouraged people to use the process as a tool for government oversight. I disagree with the point that bills sent to the president are faits accomplis. Sunlight Before Signing would have changed the “upstream” behavior of legislators who would not want to be caught out inserting the earmark or parochial amendment that takes down a bill.
Now the question stands: Will President Obama continue to implement Sunlight Before Signing in a second term? If so, will he apply the rule to all bills so that people can rely on having five days to review the legislation Congress sends him?
A legitimate alternative for President Obama is to swear off that campaign promise as improvidently made. Arguably, it was. Since then, we have learned through study (my study, in particular) that transparency is a set of practices making data reliably available and machine-discoverable and -readable.
If President Obama wants to do something for transparency, he could do something as simple as publish a federal government organization chart in machine-readable format so that legislation, oversight, and spending data could be linked to the unique identifiers for agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects, as well as authorizations, obligations, and outlays.
The Office of Management and Budget is becoming conspicuous for its foot-dragging in this area, and even its opposition to steps that would improve government transparency. If President Obama wants to be a transparency president, he could perfectly well shed Sunlight Before Signing and pledge in this campaign to make at least the organizational data OMB holds in the MAX database available to the public.
Needless to say, the Romney campaign can highlight President Obama’s inability to deliver on his soaring transparency promises by pledging to take the concrete steps noted above. I’d report just as doggedly on his compliance with such a promise.
While we wait, here are all the bills passed so far in the 112th Congress and their treatment under President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise.
[Brackets indicate a link from Whitehouse.gov to Thomas legislative database]
‡ Link to final version of bill on impossible-to-find page.