In last night’s State of the Union speech, President Obama called for tax law reforms he says we need. Cato scholars have their doubts about much of what was in the speech, but my interest was piqued by the fact that he said, “Send me these tax reforms, and I will sign them right away.”
You see signing them “right away” would again violate his 2008 campaign promise to post the bills sent him by Congress online for five days before signing them.
That’s a cheeky point, but it is time to focus on campaign promises and their honesty. The beginning of President Obama’s fourth year in office is roughly the beginning of his campaign for another term.
When I first began tracking President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise, I joked with friends that it was career gold because I could write hundreds of blog posts for the next four years without thinking a new thought. Well, it’s not quite that good. This is post thirty-six in the SBS series.
(Each character in that last sentence was a link to a previous post. You can spend a whole day reviewing them!)
Last Thursday, January 19th, was the end of President Obama’s third year, so it’s time to review how he’s been doing with Sunlight Before Signing. It was the president’s first broken promise, and at the mid-point of the term he had popped just above 50% in his compliance.
How has he done in the ensuing year?
Well … meh.
Of the 90 bills that became law in the last year, 55 got the Sunlight Before Signing treatment. That’s a 61.1% average, good enough to earn a middle-school student a D.
|Number of Bills||Emergency Bills||Bills Posted Five Days|
Year three was stronger than the previous two, so President Obama’s overall Sunlight Before Signing record moves to 52.4%. That’s poor execution on a transparency promise that energized audiences on the 2008 campaign trail. But let’s dig a little deeper.
At the end of the second year, we did some analysis and graphing to explore the hunch that inconsequential bills get plenty of sunlight and the more important ones do not. We return to that analysis.
Our first look is at compliance with Sunlight Before Signing over time. The updated numbers show essentially the same as they did before. After a first year of outright failure, there has been improvement—nowhere near perfection, just improvement.
(You can also see that Congress’ output dropped dramatically in 2011. That’s a matter of indifference in terms of Sunlight Before Signing—and a good thing if you like limited government.)
Click on the image at right to see a chart of compliance and non-compliance by number of bills over time, then compliance as a percentage of bills over time, and, in the pie chart, that overall compliance figure.
We also investigated previously the hunch that important bills get less sunlight, while unimportant bills get more. Our first proxy for importance—a rough one—was the number of pages in the bills coming to the president. Generally speaking, longer bills are more important than shorter ones. The second set of charts (click on the left) show Sunlight Before Signing compliance and non-compliance over time by number of pages, compliance by percentage of pages, and overall compliance by number of pages. You can see that overall compliance drops well below 50% to about 36%.
Another proxy for importance is the number of final passage votes a bill got in the House and Senate. Generally speaking—and it’s definitely not always true—more important bills are voted on in the House, the Senate, or both. Less important bills go through on voice vote, unanimous consent, and so on. (Sometimes important bills go through without votes because the political balances are so carefully struck. That’s good for Congress “getting things done,” but not good for transparency or your ability to oversee the government.)
Go ahead and click on the image to the right and you can see the charts reflecting Sunlight Before Signing compliance and non-compliance over time with multipliers given to bills getting one or two final votes. That result is not so decisive: compliance drops by a small amount to about 50%.
There’s still time for President Obama to execute on Sunlight Before Signing. He could make a real run at transparency by signalling right now—today—that all bills will get five-days online before he signs them. If Congress wants to finish appropriations this year at the last minute. They had better do that at the last minute plus five days or else the government will shut down.
Maybe that’s a silly idea. Maybe no president in his right mind would do something like that. If so, consider that President Obama promised to do exactly that when he campaigned for the presidency. If he was being fanciful during his last campaign, voters might consider that during his next campaign, just as they consider the credibility of all candidates. President Obama’s transparency promises have been unparalleled. His results … quite paralleled.
Perhaps President Obama is going to limp to the next election without fulfilling Sunlight Before Signing. The president could still score some real transparency points by publishing a machine-readable organization chart for the executive branch, with agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects all uniquely identified for computer processing. That would be big, and it would not be that hard.
In the meantime, here are the Sunlight Before Signing results for all the bills signed into law during President Obama’s third year.
[Brackets indicate a link from Whitehouse.gov to Thomas legislative database]