Tag: transparency

The Real World - D.C.

Reason.tv has a characteristically good video about the failure of House and Senate leaders (and the president) to make negotiations about the health care bill transparent.

It’s probably not true, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statement that “there has never been a more open process…” But even if it is, that doesn’t matter. Technology that can make the legislative process far more open is there, and the audience wishing to use it is there too.

The public’s expectations for open government have risen to what can be achieved—matching past practice is not good enough.

On C-SPAN: What’s a Little Promise Among Friends?

My, oh my. Transparency is getting defined down to excuse a breaking campaign promise.

At the Center for American Progress’ “Think Progress Wonk Room” blog (or whatever it’s called), Igor Volsky makes the case against allowing C-SPAN cameras into negotiations about the health care bill. Recall that President Obama promised on the campaign trail to have health care negotiations broadcast on C-SPAN.

“But if one actually considers the tone and tenor of the televised health care debate of 2009,” says Volsky, “filming the conference negotiations seems counterproductive.”

He does have a point. Television causes politicians to grandstand and doesn’t necessarily improve the legislative process.

But President Obama knew that when he made the promise, and he made the promise all the same. The credibility of the legislative process suffers from its overall opacity, and Candidate Obama promised different, starting with health care legislation — to progressives’ cheers as much as any other group.

Yet he appears to be walking away from that promise. And Volsky wants to abet him with a transparency caveat — only if it “improve[s] the underlying bill.”

Improvement is in the eye of the beholder, of course. This is not a welcome gloss. It’s bait and switch. “[T]he reality of politics doesn’t square with the promises of the campaign trail,” says Volsky.

Matt Yglesias’ short post backing his co-blogger is — appropriately, perhaps — opaque: “This is also an example of the concrete harm done to the country by politicians overestimating the impact of campaign tactics on election outcomes.” I don’t understand what that means.

Ezra Klein has the decency to say he’s conflicted. He admits that a transparent health care conference might be “better than nothing,” but he makes the same argument as Volsky: the process will change, but not necessarily for the better. No mention that this was a promise, or that the credibility of the president to marginal voters matters.

The argument that transparency is only useful if it leads to a better bill is reminiscent of Lawrence Lessig’s widely panned essay “Against Transparency.” I wrote of it:

Lessig sets up an interesting premise indeed: What he calls the “naked transparency movement” — unvarnished access to government data — “is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system off the cliff.”

Yes, Lessig has “change” and “pushing faith in our political system off the cliff” in opposition. So, the only thing that qualifies as “change” is improving faith in our political system? This pegged my bs detector.

These commentators have sounder premises, of course. They want transparency to improve legislation.

But transparency is not simply a means to better bills. It’s a means to better politicians — when people see one leader being smart and fair, while others are not. It’s a means to a better organized society — if people decide that politicians aren’t as qualified to apportion society’s resources as they thought. It’s a means to better-run programs — when people compare the dollars going in with the results coming out. Heck, transparency is a civics lesson for high school students! There is a transparency vision that these commentators eschew in favor of the status quo.

Even good John Wonderlich at the Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to transparency, kicks the ground and mumbles about televising conference committees not being a panacea. The promise was to broadcast “negotiations,” of course, not just the formal meeting of any conference committee. And one of the commenters on his post has the better of it. “Open [conference committees] are not a panacea, but they are one tent-pole,” says Sarah Welsh of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Her state mandated open conference committess last year, for the good.

And it was a campaign promise.

“The public should have ample opportunity to review the final product before the vote,” Igor Volsky says. Which brings us to another promise: On the campaign trail, Candidate Obama said, “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a 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.”

The president is currently six for 124 on that promise, having shown recent improvement. But one has to wonder how Volsky would caveat away that promise and further define down government transparency.

One to watch: President Obama’s promise to “go line by line” over earmarks, which OMB has said it will implement by collecting and databasing Congressmembers’ earmark requests in the FY 2011 budget cycle.

Speaking of Transparency …

A thing I really like about Sunlight Before Signing is that it’s a clear promise President Obama made on the campaign trail.

An equally clear promise, highlighted by Michael Cannon earlier this week, was to broadcast negotiations about health care reform on C-SPAN.

C-SPAN is ready. As reported by the RealClearPolitics blog on Time.com, C-SPAN public service icon Brian Lamb wrote a letter to House and Senate leadership offering to cover health care negotiations:

President Obama, Senate and House leaders, many of your rank-and-file members, and the nation’s editorial pages have all talked about the value of transparent discussions on reforming the nation’s health care system. Now that the process moves to the critical stage of reconciliation between Chambers, we respectfully request that you allow the public full access, through television, to legislation that will affect the lives of every single American.

Many others could be, but Brian Lamb isn’t pulling a partisan stunt or trying to affect the health care debate one way or another. He’s trying to fulfill the promise of open democracy that had audiences roaring when President Obama extolled these virtues on the campaign trail:

“[W]hen I’m president, meetings where laws are written will be more open to the public. No more secrecy. That’s a commitment I make to you as president. No more secrecy.”

The Audacity of Hypocrisy

In his ongoing effort to micromanage the U.S. economy President Obama used his Dec. 12 weekly radio address to promote his proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  It will be filled with bureaucrats second-guessing entrepreneurs and is sure to improve the performance of our financial institutions – much in the manner of the SEC’s bureaucrats alertly nailing Bernie Madoff just 30 years into his Ponzi scheme.  Never mind that the federal government had much more to do with the financial meltdown than the banks did, the real knee-slapper in his address was his claim that the CFPA “would bring new transparency and accountability to the financial markets…” This, from a man demanding passage of a 2000-page health care reform bill that no one, including Mr. Obama, has read.  So much for transparency and accountability.

ObamaCare Cost Estimate Watch: Day #180

On Day #179 of the ObamaCare Cost Estimate Watch, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) wrote in The Winchester Star of his involvement in the Senate health care debate:

At the start of this debate I was one of eight senators who called on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to post the text and complete budget scores of the health-care bill on a public web site for review at least 72 hours prior to both the first vote and final passage. This request was agreed to, affording proper transparency in the process.

On the contrary, as I explain in this Richmond Times-Dispatch oped, Reid did not comply with Webb’s request.

Indeed, a memo recently issued by the Congressional Budget Office suggests that Reid has been working very hard to conceal the legislation’s full cost all along.

Sunlight Before Signing Progress: Whitehouse.gov Encourages Public Comment

The White House’s web site, Whitehouse.gov, has begun posting the bills Congress sends down Pennsylvania Avenue so they can get a final public review. This actually began some time ago, but a link from the home page now directs visitors (and search engines) to the bills that await the president’s signature.

This is an important step toward fulfilling President Obama’s campaign promise to post the bills he receives from Congress online for five days before he signs them. I’ve written about it several times, most recently here.

Take a look for yourself: On the Whitehouse.gov home page, a link at the bottom of the “Featured Legislation” column says “Comment on Pending Legislation.”

Currently, four bills are listed there, arranged in order by the dates they were posted. The final language isn’t posted at the link, and it takes a little sophistication to find the final version at the linked-to page on the Thomas system, but this is substantial progress.

Kudos to the White House for moving toward full implementation of President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing promise.

On Transparency, Talk Trumps Action

In the heady first days of the administration, President Obama issued a memorandum on transparency and open government that seemed it would set the ship of state on a course for transparency, participation, and collaboration. Many people expected that within the 120-day time-frame stated in the memo, the administration would issue the “Open Government Directive” it called for.

Well, 120 days from January 21 was May 21—and 200 days after that, we are finally going to see that open government plan. An announcement of it will be streamed live on the White House web site at 11:00 am.

It turns out that administrators didn’t fall woefully behind on President Obama’s instructions. His memorandum directed the not-yet-appointed Chief Technology Officer and others “to coordinate the development by appropriate executive departments and agencies, within 120 days, of recommendations for an Open Government Directive …” It was an instruction to coordinate on the writing of a directive, and within 120 days, people were surely coordinating.

Given the exciting campaign mantra of “change,” one could forgive people expecting the administration to set its course for good governance early. How un-change-like it is that nearly a quarter of the way through President Obama’s term (an eighth if he’s reelected), with old habits established and unlikely to be dislodged, we finally get that “open government plan.”

If only this good-government priority had been pursued as steadfastly as President Obama’s big-government priorities.

While coordinating and planning has gone on, President Obama has specifically declined to carry out an open government promise he made on the campaign trail. In fact, more than 100 times since he has been in office, he has declined to post online the bills sent him by Congress for five days of public review before he signs them. I’ll put up a new chart covering all the laws President Obama has signed sans sunlight later today.

Since I last wrote about this favorite topic, I learned of a new development, however. At some point earlier this year, the White House began posting links on Whitehouse.gov to bills that were heading its direction, a half-measure the White House told the New York Times it would take.

I failed to notice the existence of these pages, but I think it is forgivable error. There is no uniform structure to them, and there is no link I can discover on Whitehouse.gov that would bring anyone to them.

Based on my spot-checking, they haven’t been crawled by any search engine, so the only way a person could find them is by searching on Whitehouse.gov for phrases on the yet unseen pages or by searching the House or Senate bill numbers of bills that you know to look for because they have already passed into law.

This doesn’t fulfill the spirit of the Sunlight Before Signing pledge. It doesn’t give the public an opportunity to review final bills and comment before the president signs them. I doubt if a single one of the people who cheered when President Obama made his Sunlight Before Signing pledge has visited one of these pages and commented to the president as he told them they would be able to do.

There are further curiosities: The pages themselves are undated, but their “posted” dates, which appear in search results, are sometimes well beyond the date on which they became law. A Whitehouse.gov search for H.R. 2131, which became Public Law 111-70 on October 9th, shows that it was posted for comment on October 23rd.

Today the White House announces plans for dramatic steps forward on government transparency. But the steps it could have taken starting on day one remain promises unfulfilled. President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” campaign pledge breaks every time he signs a bill without posting its final version at Whitehouse.gov for five days of public review before signing it.