Tag: transparency

Broken Promises — to Voters and the New York Times

“[O]nce it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online,” White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told New York Times reporter Katherine Seelye for her June 22 story on President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” campaign pledge. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”

The story, titled “White House Changes the Terms of a Campaign Pledge About Posting Bills Online,” was about the White House effort to walk back from President Obama’s campaign pledge to post bills he receives for five days before signing them.

When the New York Times published the story, five bills had been presented to the president and were awaiting his signature. Four more were presented to him after the story’s publication. All nine are now law.

And for the life of me, I can’t find where any of them have been posted on Whitehouse.gov. Surely it was clear to the White House that the five bills it had and the four soon to come would reach the president’s desk.

I disagree with arguments for releasing President Obama from his pledge to sign bills only after he has posted them for a full five days after receiving them. It would have the same effects as the 72-hour hold the Sunlight Foundation is seeking from Congress — also a welcome legislative process reform.

And it’s becoming more clear that the five-day promise could be implemented. At this point, only one of 39 bills that the president has signed has been posted for five days in advance. (The DTV Delay Act was actually not held five days after formal presentment, but the White House posted it after the final version had passed Congress.) Twenty-four other bills have been held at the White House five days or more before the President has signed them. They just haven’t been posted.

To repeat, over 60% of the legislation coming out of Congress waits five days for the president’s signature as a matter of course. The only thing preventing implementation of the president’s promise as to these bills is the White House’s inexplicable reluctance to do what it says it will do.

At this point, it’s worth repeating that I can’t find the bills online at Whitehouse.gov. I have searched the site high and low, even entering URLs where I would guess they might be. I find it hard to believe that no bills have been posted under even the modified promise given to the Times late last month. I will happily post a correction and apology if there is a corner of Whitehouse.gov that I failed to explore. (If bills are so deeply hidden, that’s a problem, too, of course.)

I’m fond of joking that the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise is a golden opportunity because I can write 100 blog posts over the next few years without thinking a single original thought. But voters and me are one thing — if the White House is breaking a promise to the New York Times, that could be serious!

For the record, here are the pieces of legislation signed by the president so far:

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 1/28/2009 1/29/2009 1/29/2009 No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 2/4/2009 2/4/2009 2/1/2009 No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act 2/9/2009 2/11/2009 2/5/2009 Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 2/16/2009 2/17/2009 2/13/2009 No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes 3/6/2009 3/6/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building” 2/26/09 3/9/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009 3/11/2009 3/11/2009 3/6/2009 No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs 3/18/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes 3/19/2009 3/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 3/30/2009 No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009 3/24/2009 3/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act 4/20/2009 4/21/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse” 4/14/2009 4/23/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009 4/14/2009 4/24/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-16, The Statutory Time-Periods Technical Amendments Act of 2009 4/30/2009 5/7/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-17, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of David M. Rubenstein as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 4/28/2009 5/7/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-18, A bill to repeal section 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, commonly known as the “Bennett Freeze” 4/28/2009 5/8/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-19, The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009 4/30/2009 5/12/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-20, The Protecting Incentives for the Adoption of Children with Special Needs Act of 2009 5/5/2009 5/15/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-21, The FERA 5/19/2009 5/20/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-22, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009 5/20/2009 5/22/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-23, The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 5/21/2009 5/22/2009 5/14/2009 No
P.L. 111-24, The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009 5/20/2009 5/22/2009 5/14/2009 No
P.L. 111-25, The Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act 5/21/2009 6/2/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-26, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 12877 Broad Street in Sparta, Georgia, as the “Yvonne Ingram-Ephraim Post Office Building” 6/9/2009 6/19/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-27, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 300 East 3rd Street in Jamestown, New York, as the “Stan Lundine Post Office Building” 6/9/2009 6/19/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-28, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 103 West Main Street in McLain, Mississippi, as the “Major Ed W. Freeman Post Office” 6/9/2009 6/19/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-29, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 3245 Latta Road in Rochester, New York, as the “Brian K. Schramm Post Office Building” 6/9/2009 6/19/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-30, The Antitrust Criminal Penalty Enhancement and Reform Act of 2004 Extension Act 6/19/2009 6/19/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-31, The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act 6/16/2009 6/22/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-32, The Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2009 6/19/2009 6/24/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-33, The Native American Heritage Day Act of 2009 6/16/2009 6/26/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-34, To designate the Federal building and United States courthouse located at 306 East Main Street in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, as the “J. Herbert W. Small Federal Building and United States Courthouse” 6/19/2009 6/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-35, To designate the Federal building located at 799 United Nations Plaza in New York, New York, as the “Ronald H. Brown United States Mission to the United Nations Building” 6/19/2009 6/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-36, The Webcaster Settlement Act of 2009 6/19/2009 6/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-37, The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2009 6/25/2009 6/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-38, A bill to provide additional personnel authorities for the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction 6/24/2009 6/30/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-39, To make technical corrections to the Higher Education Act of 1965, and for other purposes 6/26/2009 7/1/2009 No n/a
P.L. 111-40, A bill to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Women Airforce Service Pilots (“WASP”) 6/24/2009 7/1/2009 No n/a

One Web Site: $18,000,000

A company called Smartronix will get $18,000,000 to redesign Recovery.gov, the federal Web site intended to track where federal Recovery Act spending goes.

The government purchased technology for a similar site (with a somewhat smaller scope), USASpending.gov, from the non-profit group OMB Watch for only $600,000. A private company already provides information on Recovery Act spending to the public for free.

[Update: A link formerly just above at “for free” has been removed. To learn the unusual circumstances of the removal, check out: Copyright Law’s Abuse.]

I wrote here enthusiastically about the plans of the Sunlight Foundation to go after this contract, saying “[T]he contract award will now be subject to public scrutiny. Value-for-dollar to the taxpayer will be easily discernible, and that will raise the political risks of awarding the contract based on cronyism or go-with-whatchya-knowism. Transparency in all things.”

Sunlight did not ultimately bid. Instead, it took some lessons about the government contracting business. The transparency I wrote about materialized, though, and we can take a lesson, too: The federal government will pay $18,000,000 for one freaking Web site.

Ron Paul at Cato: ‘Audit the Fed’

When Texas Congressman and former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul speaks about transparency in the Federal Reserve, he sums up his argument with one simple question. Why not?

“Why in the world should this much power be given to a Federal Reserve that has the authority to create $1 trillion secretly?” Ron Paul asked a standing room-only crowd today at the Cato Institute.

Paul was on a panel of speakers, including Gilbert Schwartz, former associate general counsel to the Federal Reserve, to discuss a new bill that will audit the Fed for the first time in its history. This comes at a time when the Fed’s balance sheet has almost tripled, from just over $800 billion before the financial crisis to almost $2.3 trillion now.

“We will only win when the people wake up and realize that transparency is what we need,” said Paul. “When we know exactly what’s happening, there will be monetary reform.”

Watch the rest of Paul’s comments below:

“It’s a Lot Easier to Promise to Change Washington Than It Is to Actually Change It”

The New York Times has an interesting story on President Obama’s continuing failure to follow through on his “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. On the campaign trail, he said he would post bills online for five days before signing them. Two dozen bills now have his signature, and only one has been posted for five days before signing.

The article (and accompanying video) fixes on a couple of reasons why the president might be excused from carrying out the promise. One is the technical difficulty of managing potentially hundreds of thousands of comments. The promise did not include a promise to publish comments, though – much less to read them (though it would be politically astute to appear to do so). In my view, the difficulty of administering a public comment system – which was not part of the promise – does not excuse the failure to post the bills Congress presents to the president for five days before he signs them.

A second excuse is that posting bills online would be ineffectual. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation is quoted saying, “There isn’t anybody in this town who doesn’t know that commenting after a bill has been passed is meaningless.”

I have done my level-best to illustrate how a five-day hold at the White House would have good effects on reducing earmarks, parochial amendments, and other shenanigans – such as congressional approval of bonuses to AIG executives.

Miller’s preferred approach – placing a similar hold on bills before they leave Congress – would have a similar effect – but nothing dramatically more open. Just as under a presidential hold, members of Congress and Senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments. Just as under a presidential hold, they would carefully avoid a blossoming of debate about their pet projects at the end of the legislative process. A congressional hold would change the upstream behavior of the politicians – just like a presidential hold would.

A presidential hold and a congressional hold are both good ideas, and they are not mutually exclusive. The presidential hold has a key advantage: The president has already promised it – to the cheers of American voters.

The New York Times story reports a small step toward meeting the actual terms of President Obama’s pledge:

“In order to continue providing the American people more transparency in government, once it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”

If this means posting links to bills on the Thomas legislative system from Whitehouse.gov, this is something the White House has done sporadically, and it would increase transparency by a small margin if it were regularized. The administration should establish a uniform URL where bills are posted so that every American can easily find every bill the president signs. But, in terms of fulfilling President Obama’s promise, “posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it.”

I think this is grudging progress toward implementation of President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. In the video, the author of the Times article has the best line illustrating why the White House deserves modest congratulations for taking this step: “It’s a lot easier to promise to change Washington than it is to actually change it.”

Transparency: Good News / Bad News

Last week was an interesting week for transparency, with some good news and some bad news.

On the “good” side of the ledger, the administration rolled out “Data.gov,” a growing set of data feeds provided by U.S. government agencies. These will permit the public to do direct oversight of the kind I discussed at our “Just Give Us the Data!” policy forum back in December.

My metric of whether Data.gov is a success will be when independent users and Web sites use government data to produce new and interesting information and applications. The Sunlight Foundation has a contest underway to promote just that. Get ready for really interesting, cool, direct public oversight of the government.

Also under the White House’s new “Open Government Initiative,” an Open Government Dialogue “brainstorming session” began last week. The public can submit ideas for making the government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. This is important stuff, an outgrowth of President Obama’s open government directive, issued on his first full day in office.

That directive called for the Office of Management and Budget to require specific actions of agencies “within 120 days,” which meant the final product was due last week. And that missed deadline is where we start to slide into the “bad” on the transparency ledger.

Last week, President Obama gave an important speech on national security (which I blogged about here and here). But you couldn’t find the speech in the “Speeches” section of the Whitehouse.gov Web site. It’s buried elsewhere. That’s “basic Web site malpractice,” I told NextGov.com. And I cautioned my friends in the transparency community not to forget Government 1.0 for all the whiz-bang Gov 2.0 projects flashing before our eyes. Whitehouse.gov should be a useful, informative resource for average Americans.

The current top proposal on the “brainstorming” site referred to above is to require a 72-hour mandatory public review period on major spending bills. This is reminiscent of President Obama’s promise to hold bills five days before signing them. But, as Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times, the president signed several more bills last week without holding them the requisite time.

The White House protests that they posted links to bills on the Thomas Web site at the Whitehouse.gov blog. But that does not give the public meaningful review of the bills in their final form, as they have come to the president from Congress. “Posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it,” says John Wonderlich at Sunlight.

President Obama signed nine new laws since we last reviewed his record on the “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. Alas, it’s been a case study in pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.

Five of the bills were held by the White House more than five days before the president signed them, but they weren’t posted! Simply posting them on Whitehouse.gov in final form would have satisfied “Sunlight Before Signing.”

President Obama’s average drops to .043, and that’s crediting him one win for the DTV Delay Act, which was posted at Whitehouse.gov in its final form for five days after Congress passed it, but before presentment, which is the logical time to start the five-day clock.

Here is the latest tally of bills passed by Congress, including the date presented, date signed, whether they’ve been posted or linked to at Whitehouse.gov, and whether they’ve been posted for the full five days after presentment. (Corrections welcome - there is no uniform way that the White House is posting bills or links, so I may have missed something.)

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted (Linked) for Comment? Five Days?
P.L. 111-2, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009
1/28/2009
1/29/2009
1/29/2009
No
P.L. 111-3, The Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009
2/4/2009
2/4/2009
2/1/2009
No
P.L. 111-4, The DTV Delay Act
2/9/2009
2/11/2009
2/5/2009
Yes and No
P.L. 111-5, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
2/16/2009
2/17/2009
2/13/2009
No
P.L. 111-6, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2009, and for other purposes
3/6/2009
3/6/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-7, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2105 East Cook Street in Springfield, Illinois, as the “Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. Post Office Building”
2/26/09
3/9/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-8, The Omnibus Appropriations Act, 2009
3/11/2009
3/11/2009
3/6/2009
No
P.L. 111-9, To extend certain immigration programs
3/18/2009
3/20/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-10, To provide for an additional temporary extension of programs under the Small Business Act and the Small Business Investment Act of 1958, and for other purposes
3/19/2009
3/20/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-11, The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009
3/30/2009
3/30/2009
3/30/2009
No
P.L. 111-12, The Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act of 2009
3/24/2009
3/30/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-13, The Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act
4/20/2009
4/21/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-14, To designate the United States courthouse under construction at 327 South Church Street, Rockford, Illinois, as the “Stanley J. Roszkowski United States Courthouse”
4/14/2009
4/23/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-15, The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program Act of 2009
4/14/2009
4/24/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-16, The Statutory Time-Periods Technical Amendments Act of 2009
4/30/2009
5/7/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-17, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of David M. Rubenstein as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution
4/28/2009
5/7/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-18, A bill to repeal section 10(f) of Public Law 93-531, commonly known as the “Bennett Freeze”
4/28/2009
5/8/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-19, The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009
4/30/2009
5/12/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-20, The Protecting Incentives for the Adoption of Children with Special Needs Act of 2009
5/5/2009
5/15/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-21, The FERA
5/19/2009
5/22/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-22, The Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009
5/20/2009
5/22/2009
No
n/a
P.L. 111-23, The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009
5/21/2009
5/22/2009
5/14/2009
No
P.L. 111-24, The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009
5/20/2009
5/22/2009
5/14/2009
No

Transparency and National Security Are Not in Tension

Penny-wise and pound-foolish. That is my take on the “balance between transparency and national security” President Obama claims to have struck with regard to photographs of wrongdoing at Abu Ghraib.

Taking it as a given that release of the photos would inflame enemies in Iraq and threaten our troops there, failing to release the photos will warm anti-American sentiment the world over for far longer as people assume that the U.S. is concealing far worse than what is already known.

Not lancing a boil is a way to avoid pain, but failing to lance that boil is potentially much more painful over the long haul. By not releasing the photos, President Obama protects troops today at a cost to more troops in the future.

The damage was done at Abu Ghraib. All that remains is to let sunlight heal the wounds or to let the infection continue to fester.

Bank ‘Stress Tests’ Need Transparency

As the bank stress tests are released, it is vital that the public receive specific and detailed information on each financial institution.  The Administration’s and the Federal Reserve’s continued policy of attempting to disguise the differing health of each bank has been a failure.  What is best for the taxpayer and the investing public is sufficient information to separate the good banks from the bad.

For those institutions which lack sufficient capital to remain solvent, they should seek private capital or else be closed and resolved.  Too many taxpayer dollars have already been wasted keeping alive failed institutions.  The Administration’s policy of keeping failed institutions on taxpayer-financed life-support only serves to retard the market’s ability to move assets away from those who do not, or cannot, make productive use of them toward those who can.  It is time to remember that the unparalleled wealth-creating engine of the market depends as much on allowing failure as it does in encouraging success.

Banks passing the stress tests should be allowed and encouraged to re-pay their TARP funds as soon as possible, and with no additional strings attached.  More importantly, the Administration should use any returned TARP funds to pay-down the increasing government debt, rather than be diverted to bailing-out other failed companies.