Tag: transparency

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.

McCain: Interests of Defense Contractors May Conflict with US National Interest

USA Today reports that retired military officers join the boards of directors of, or become employees of, defense contractors and take home big bags of money doing so.  Not surprising.  At the same time, the paper reports, lots of them are being paid by the Pentagon to be “senior mentors” of their former colleagues. Not being government employees, but rather independent contractors, these folks aren’t subject to government ethics rules.  To take one example, as chairman of BAE Systems, Gen. Anthony Zinni is clearing almost a million a year, in addition to his $129,000 per year government pension.  In addition to all that, the Pentagon pays him about $2,000 per day to “mentor” people at DOD.

As the article points out, information is almost invaluable to the defense contractors in these contexts.  The knowledge of what’s going on at DOD is extremely useful for planners at the defense companies, and so while the retired officers are protesting that being paid nearly $2,000 per day by DOD for their work as mentors is “way below the industry average,” it increases their value to, and presumably their compensation from, their military-industrial employers.  As one coordinator of the mentors program told the retired officers, “you’re getting paid in two ways–monetarily and informationally.”

This isn’t too surprising a story, but the crowning irony comes as Sen. John McCain calls for an ethics rewrite and offers his view that “the important thing is that [the involved officers] avoid the appearance of conflict.” This is a puzzling remark coming from a man whose top foreign-policy adviser was collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Georgian government to lobby McCain at the same time he was being paid by McCain to advise him on foreign policy.

McCain’s thoughts about conflict of interest in that instance?  He was “so proud” of his lobbyist-cum-adviser.  Presumably once McCain issued his ridiculous “today we are all Georgians” fatwa it became a patriotic duty to take money from foreign governments to represent their interests.  But in the case of the proposed reforms–which would attempt to institute some semblance of transparency in these mentoring deals–one can only wish the senator from Arizona the best.

The House Health Care Bill — Transparent or Not?

The House health care bill is reportedly coming to the floor this weekend, and House Speaker Pelosi committed in September to a 72-hour delay between the time the bill is posted online and a final vote.

Is that 72-hour delay happening? Some say yes. Some say no.

On the “yes” side are some folks at the Sunlight Foundation. John Wonderlich wrote a post last Sunday called “72 Hours is Now.” He hailed the posting of the health care bill well in advance of a vote.

“Public outcry, partisan pressure, and rising expectations are forcing Congress’s hand,” he wrote, ”and it’s now (apparently) taken as a matter of course that this bill is online for a long weekend before its final consideration.”

Paul Blumenthal followed that up mid-week, sounding slightly more cautious notes but hailing the posting of the “final manager’s amendment.” His post restarted the 72-hour clock.

Which brings us to the folks who say no.

On the Weekly Standard blog, John McCormack says that Speaker Pelosi plans to violate the promise to post the health care bill online for 72 hours.

House members are still negotiating important issues in the bill — whether it will provide taxpayer-funding for abortions, for example. Pelosi is pushing for a Saturday House vote, and a number of big changes will be introduced, likely less than 24 hours before the vote takes place (if in fact it does).

Did Pelosi promise to post a bill? Yes — and she did, when it was pretty near final.

Meanwhile, though, the really tricky details — the stuff that matters to a lot of people — are still being hammered out. The spirit of the 72-hour pledge remains unfulfilled.

And this reveals a weakness in H. Res. 554, the preferred reform of the Sunlight-backed ”Read the Bill” effort. It would install a House rule giving bills 72 hours of online airing “before floor consideration.”

Floor consideration can and regularly does include the adoption of a “manager’s amendment” which can revamp a bill wholesale or add and subtract key details — things that matter.

H. Res. 554 has a loophole you can drive a truck through, and Speaker Pelosi is revving her engines.

This episode is a good, if regrettable, illustration that “self-reform” by a branch of government isn’t reliable. “Read the bill” is a good idea, but the genius of President Obama’s parallel “Sunlight Before Signing” pledge to hold bills coming out of Congress for five days before signing them is that it is based on interbranch rivalry. Especially, but not only, when there is partisan division between the president and Congress, competition among branches will promote the practice.

(More on “Read the Bill” and “Sunlight Before Signing” here.)

Getting Congress to hold up its own legislation for 72 hours, giving meaningful access to the public of every detail, is asking Congress to be altruistic. And Congress is anything but altruistic.

Federal Reserve as Cash Cow

Scheduled for consideration before the House Financial Services Committee this week is a draft bill creating a Consumer Financial Protection Agency. 

While there is a lot wrong with the bill – after all it is based on the premise that somehow consumers were tricked into not making a downpayment or re-financing thousands out of their homes, and then walking away – perhaps the most important provision, and the least discussed, is funding the agency by a transfer of cash from the Federal Reserve.  Section 119 of the bill requires the Federal Reserve to transfer an amount equal to 10 percent of its expenses to the new agency’s Director. 

This I believe is the first time in history that Congress is using the Federal Reserve to simply fund another agency.  Why stop there, how about have the Fed just prints trillions of dollars to pay for the rest of the government?  If Congress believes this agency will benefit the public, then the agency should be funded by the public, by a direct appropriations raised by taxes. 

Of course after watching Ben Bernanke turn the Fed’s balance sheet into a slush fund for Wall Street, it was only going to be a matter of time before someone in Congress decided to use that slush fund for their own purposes.  So much for transparency in government.

What Does the State Department Not Want Us to Know about Honduras?

Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina recently traveled to Honduras and found—no surprise—a peaceful country and broad support for the ouster of President Zelaya among members of civil society, the supreme court, political parties and others. In an op-ed in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, DeMint describes his trip in light of Washington’s continuing support of Zelaya and its condemnation of what it calls a “coup.” U.S. policy is mystifying since the ousted president’s removal from office was a rare example in Latin America of an institutional defense of democracy as envisioned by the constitution and interpreted by the Supreme Court that ruled that the president be removed. (For independent opinions on the case, see here and here.)

However, the Senator reports a legal analysis at the State Department prepared by its top lawyer that apparently has informed Washington’s policy but that has not been made public nor even released to DeMint despite his repeated requests. In the interest of democracy and transparency, the State Department should immediately release its legal report. Maybe then we (which includes much of the hemisphere) will be less mystified about what is driving Washington policy toward Honduras. Or at least we’ll have a better insight on the administration’s understanding of democracy.

Senate Health Regulation Bill Includes National ID Plan

Thanks to the push for a more transparent Congress, we’re getting a better look at what new health care regulations might shape up to be. Alas, not a very good look: with weak justifications, the Senate Finance Committee is working on a strange “plain language” description of the bill, and apparently not planning to read or release the final language.

I’ve found something worth noting, though, in each of the bill versions I’ve seen. The Senate Finance Committee’s Rube Goldberg plan for health care in America has a provision establishing paragraph talking about “Eligibility Verification.”

If you want to access the “state exchanges” or collect the federal tax credits created by the bill, your eligibility will have to be verified. Here’s what it says:

Eligibility Verification. In order to prevent illegal immigrants from accessing the state exchanges or obtaining federal health care tax credits, the Chairman‘s Mark requires verification of the following personal data. Name, social security number, and date of birth will be verified with Social Security Administration (SSA) data. For individuals claiming to be U.S. citizens, if the claim of citizenship is consistent with SSA data then the claim will be considered substantiated. For individuals who do not claim to be U.S. citizens but claim to be lawfully present in the United States, if the claim of lawful presence is consistent with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data then the claim will be considered substantiated. Individuals whose status is expected to expire in less than a year are not allowed to obtain the tax credit. Individuals whose claims of citizenship or lawful status cannot be verified with federal data must be allowed substantial opportunity to provide documentation or correct federal data related to their case that supports their contention.

Translation: Every American who wants to access a “state exchange” or get the tax credits in the bill would have to submit data about themselves to the Social Security Administration or Department of Homeland Security for verification. If you don’t do it, no exchanges or tax credits. If your data doesn’t match, no exchanges or tax credits, unless you can convince SSA or DHS bureaucrats that you are who you say you are.

Sound familiar? Then you probably read my Cato Policy Analysis “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.” The paper discusses how verification of immigration status for employment eligibility would plunge Americans into a Kafka-esque bureaucracy and deny many law-abiding Americans the ability to work. Ultimately, the system requires a national identification card.

The same goes with a health care “eligibility verification” system. If you’re one of the millions of people about whom the Social Security Administration has bad data, plan to spend long hours waiting in line to plead with indifferent federal bureaucrats for health care access. When attacks and complications on the verification system break it down, they’ll move to “strengthen” the system. Get ready to dig up your birth certificate—they’ll want to scan it into their computers—plan to be photographed and fingerprinted, and get ready to stand in line for your national ID card.

It was refreshing to see Joe Wilson heckle the president the other week—the president is our employee, after all—but in their enthusiasm to generate differences with President Obama, Republicans may be coalescing behind plans to push a national ID and federal background check system that all freedom-loving Americans should reject.