Tag: transparency

Obama Lags House Republicans on Data Transparency

For the last two years, we have been working on the question of data transparency. In a paper last fall called Publication Practices for Transparent Government, we examined what it takes to foster transparency. And we started informally grading the quality of data put out by Congress and the administration. First, it was legislative data, which, as I reported here, needs improvement. (Also see our Capitol Hill briefing.) Then it was budget, appropriations, and spending data. In that area, “needs improvement” is an understatement. (And another Capitol Hill briefing.)

Now we are in a position to formally grade the quality of data coming out of the government. And the interesting finding, to be formally released on Monday, is that President Obama lags House Republicans in transparent data publication. The paper is called “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.”

Obama is the president who ran in 2008 on strong promises of transparent government. Within minutes of his taking office on January 20, 2009, the Whitehouse.gov website declared: “President Obama has committed to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.”

His first presidential memorandum, issued the next day, was entitled “Transparency and Open Government,” and it declared:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

That hasn’t really happened.

President Obama’s Sunlight Before Signing campaign promise— his pledge to post laws to the White House website for five days of public comment before he signed them—was his first broken promise. It went virtually ignored in the first year of his administration.

But it wasn’t a lack of energy and creativity that derailed the transparency project.

It was a subtle “shift in vocabulary” in the open government effort. Instead of data about the core of government that made Obama’s campaign claims so attractive, data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results, the administration delivered data the government collects and warehouses about everything under the sun.

There is still no machine-readable organization chart for the federal government. The agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects of government—its basic building blocks—don’t have identifiers people could use to track the government with the aid of their computers. That is why, as you can see above, the administration gets very poor grades on its data publication practices.

Meanwhile, the Congress has plodded forward with data publication reforms that, although minor, represent progress. The House leadership, for example, produced docs.house.gov, at which it makes available the bills coming to the House floor in a format that can be automatically read and disseminated.

A follow-on, beta.congress.gov, will eventually replace the THOMAS Web site. THOMAS was revolutionary for its time, but ideally a basic web interface and bulk data access will make for a robust legislative information environment.

Congress’s grades are better than the administration’s, though nobody can argue that the job is done.

The report summarizes things this way:

Between the Obama administration and House Republicans, the former, starting from a low transparency baseline, made extravagant promises and put significant effort into the project of government transparency. It has not been a success. House Republicans, who manage a far smaller segment of the government, started from a higher transparency baseline, made modest promises, and have taken limited steps to execute those promises.

Transparency: Obama Lags House Republicans

Maybe President Obama made a mistake during the 2008 campaign, promising great strides in government transparency as he did. Because he hasn’t delivered them.

House Republicans, on the other hand, started from a better place than President Obama, made modest claims about how they would improve, and took some steps in the direction of improvement.

This makes it pretty easy to say that the president lags House Republicans in terms of transparency.

This afternoon, I presented at an Advisory Committee on Transparency panel about how well government data is published. You can see the grades I delivered to the right and below.

When the burst of transparency effort that began in 2008 started flagging, I figured we should probably come up with something measurable. Over the last couple of years, we’ve created models of what legislative processes would look like if they were published as really good data. We’ve done the same with budgeting and spending information.

Next, we’ve been assessing how well that data is currently published. See my previous reports here and here. Some of it is the responsibility of Congress. Some is the responsibility of the White House. And some of it is a divided responsibility. The little “Capitol” and “White House” icons tell you which.

How well is all this data published? Not well at all.

The worst of it is probably this: There is still no machine-readable federal government organization chart.

What that means is that there aren’t distinct identifiers computers could use to help us in organizing our oversight of the government. That makes it really, really hard to oversee the government. It makes it hard to gather what agencies, bureaus, projects, and programs are affected by the bills in Congress.

You know how easy it is to shop on Amazon or eBay? It should be that easy to keep track of what’s going in Congress. But the data isn’t there. That’s a failure of President Obama’s, who claimed he would deliver transparent government.

So here are the report cards we’ve produced, illustrating how Congress and the White House are doing on publishing data. None of the grades are very good, but where Congress has weak grades, the Obama Administration’s grades are horrible. The conclusion? Obama lags House Republicans on transparency.

Sunlight Before Signing: Measuring a Campaign Promise

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.

This is my thirty-seventh post on the topic. Each character in that last sentence is a link to a previous post. Read through to see the full saga of Sunlight Before Signing implementation.

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 %
2009 124 0 6 4.8%
2010 258 1 186 72.4%
2011 81 0 55 67.9%
2012 92 0 75 81.5%
Overall 555 1 368 66.3%

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.

Public Law Date Presented Date Signed Posted [(Linked)]? Posted Five Days?
P.L. 112-1, 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 1/28/2011 1/31/2011 [1/28/2011] No
P.L. 112-2, A bill to designate the United States courthouse under construction at 98 West First Street, Yuma, Arizona, as the “John M. Roll United States Courthouse” 2/11/2011 2/17/2011 [2/11/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-3, The FISA Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 2/23/2011 2/25/2011 [2/23/2011 No
P.L. 112-4, The Further Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/2/2011 3/2/2011 [3/2/2011] No
P.L. 112-5, The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2011 3/3/2011 3/4/2011 No No
P.L. 112-6, The Additional Continuing Appropriations Amendments, 2011 3/17/2011 3/18/2011 No No
P.L. 112-7, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011 3/30/2011 3/31/2011 3/30/2011 No
P.L. 112-8, The Department of Defense and Further Additional Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 4/9/2011 4/9/2011 No No
P.L. 112-9, The Comprehensive 1099 Taxpayer Protection and Repayment of Exchange Subsidy Overpayments Act of 2011 4/6/2011 4/14/2011 [4/7/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-10, The Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011 4/15/2011 4/15/2011 [4/14/2011] No
P.L. 112-11, A bill to designate the Federal building and United States courthouse located at 217 West King Street, Martinsburg, West Virginia, as the “W. Craig Broadwater Federal Building and United States Courthouse” 4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-12, A joint resolution providing for the appointment of Stephen M. Case as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 4/14/2011 4/25/2011 [4/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-13, To amend the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission Act to extend the termination date for the Commission, and for other purposes 5/2/2011 5/12/2011 [5/2/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-14, The PATRIOT Sunsets Extension Act of 2011 5/26/2011 5/26/2011 No No
P.L. 112-15, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Inverness, California, as the “Specialist Jake Robert Velloza Post Office” 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-16, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part II 5/26/2011 5/31/2011 [5/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-17, The Small Business Additional Temporary Extension Act of 2011 6/1/2011 6/1/2011 [6/1/2011] No
P.L. 112-18, The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011 6/1/2011 6/8/2011 [6/1/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-19, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Shirley Ann Jackson as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-20, A joint resolution providing for the reappointment of Robert P. Kogod as a citizen regent of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 6/21/2011 6/24/2011 [6/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-21, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part III 6/28/2011 6/29/2011 [6/28/2011] No
P.L. 112-22, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 4865 Tallmadge Road in Rootstown, Ohio, as the “Marine Sgt. Jeremy E. Murray Post 6/23/2011 6/29/2011 [6/23/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-23, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 95 Dogwood Street in Cary, Mississippi, as the “Spencer Byrd Powers, Jr. Post Office” 6/23/2011 6/29/2011 [6/23/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-24, A bill to extend the term of the incumbent Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation 7/26/2011 7/26/2011 [7/26/2011] No
P.L. 112-25, The Budget Control Act of 2011 8/2/2011 8/2/2011 No No
P.L. 112-26, The Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act of 2011 7/28/2011 8/3/2011 [7/28/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-27, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, Part IV 8/5/2011 8/5/2011 [8/5/2011] No
P.L. 112-28, To provide the Consumer Product Safety Commission with greater authority and discretion in enforcing the consumer product safety laws, and for other purposes 8/5/2011 8/12/2011 [8/5/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-29, The America Invents Act 9/12/2011 9/16/2011 [9/12/2011] No
P.L. 112-30, The Surface and Air Transportation Programs Extension Act of 2011 9/16/2011 9/16/2011 No No
P.L. 112-31, A bill to designate the United States courthouse located at 80 Lafayette Street in Jefferson City, Missouri, as the Christopher S. Bond United States Courthouse 9/22/2011 9/23/2011 [9/22/2011] No
P.L. 112-32, The Combating Autism 9/29/2011 9/30/2011 [9/29/2011] No
P.L. 112-33, The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 9/29/2011 9/30/2011 [9/29/2011] No
P.L. 112-34, The Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act 9/27/2011 9/30/2011 [9/28/2011] No
P.L. 112-35, The Short-Term TANF Extension Act 9/27/2011 9/30/2011 [9/27/2011] No
P.L. 112-36, The Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 10/4/2011 10/5/2011 [10/4/2011] No
P.L. 112-37, The Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act of 2011 9/27/2011 10/5/2011 [9/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-38, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1081 Elbel Road in Schertz, Texas, as the “Schertz Veterans Post Office” 10/6/2011 10/12/2011 [10/6/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-39, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 5014 Gary Avenue in Lubbock, Texas, as the “Sergeant Chris Davis Post Office” 10/6/2011 10/12/2011 [10/6/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-40, To extend the Generalized System of Preferences, and for other purposes 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-41, The United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-42, The United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-43, The United States-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement Implementation Act 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-44, The United States Parole Commission Extension Act of 2011 10/13/2011 10/21/2011 [10/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-45, To clarify the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Interior with respect to the C.C. Cragin Dam and Reservoir, and for other purposes 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 10/31/2011 Yes
P.L. 112-46, The Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act of 2011 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-47, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 489 Army Drive in Barrigada, Guam, as the “John Pangelinan Gerber Post Office Building” 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-48, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 281 East Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California, as the “First Lieutenant Oliver Goodall Post Office Building” 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-49, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 45 Meetinghouse Lane in Sagamore Beach, Massachusetts, as the “Matthew A. Pucino Post Office” 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-50, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 4354 Pahoa Avenue in Honolulu, Hawaii, as the “Cecil L. Heftel Post Office Building” 10/31/2011 11/7/2011 [10/31/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-51, The Removal Clarification Act of 2011 11/4/2011 11/9/2011 [11/4/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-52, To direct the Secretary of the Interior to allow for prepayment of repayment contracts between the United States and the Uintah Water Conservancy District 11/4/2011 11/9/2011 [11/4/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-53, The Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011 11/3/2011 11/9/2011 [11/3/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-54, The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Business Travel Cards Act of 2011 11/10/2011 11/12/2011 [11/10/2011] No
P.L. 112-55, The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2012 11/17/2011 11/18/2011 No No
P.L. 112-56, To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to repeal the imposition of 3 percent withholding on certain payments made to vendors by government entities 11/19/2011 11/21/2011 No No
P.L. 112-57, The Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011 11/14/2011 11/21/2011 [11/14/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-58, To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to toll, during active-duty service abroad in the Armed Forces, the periods of time to file a petition and appear for an interview to remove the conditional basis for permanent resident status, and for other purposes 11/16/2011 11/23/2011 [11/16/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-59, To grant the congressional gold medal to the Montford Point Marines 11/15/2011 11/23/2011 [11/15/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-60, A bill to designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 462 Washington Street, Woburn Massachusetts, as the “Officer John Maguire Post Office” 11/17/2011 11/23/2011 [11/17/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-61, The America’s Cup Act of 2011 11/18/2011 11/29/2011 [11/21/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-62, The Appeal Time Clarification Act of 2011 11/18/2011 11/29/2011 [11/18/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-63, The Federal Courts Jurisdiction and Venue Clarification Act of 2011 12/2/2011 12/7/2011 [12/2/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-64, The National Guard and Reservist Debt Relief Extension Act of 2011 12/7/2011 12/13/2011 [12/7/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-65, A bill to revise the Federal charter for the Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc. to reflect a change in eligibility requirements for membership 12/8/2011 12/13/2011 [12/8/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-66, A bill to amend title 36, United States Code, to authorize the American Legion under its Federal charter to provide guidance and leadership to the individual departments and posts of the American Legion, and for other purposes 12/8/2011 12/13/2011 [12/8/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-67, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2012, and for other purposes 12/16/2011 12/16/2011 No No
P.L. 112-68, Making further continuing appropriations for fiscal year 2012, and for other purposes 12/17/2011 12/17/2011 No No
P.L. 112-69, The Fort Pulaski National Monument Lease Authorization Act 12/9/2011 12/19/2011 [12/9/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-70, The Box Elder Utah Land Conveyance Act 12/9/2011 12/19/2011 [12/9/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-71, A joint resolution to grant the consent of Congress to an amendment to the compact between the States of Missouri and Illinois providing that bonds issued by the Bi-State Development Agency may mature in not to exceed 40 years 12/13/2011 12/19/2011 [12/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-72, The Hoover Power Allocation Act of 2011 12/13/2011 12/20/2011 [12/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-73, The Civilian Service Recognition Act of 2011 12/13/2011 12/20/2011 [12/13/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-74, The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2012 12/21/2011 12/23/2011 [12/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-75, The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Reform and Reauthorization Act of 2011 12/19/2011 12/23/2011 [12/19/2011] No
P.L. 112-76, The Fallen Heroes of 9/11 Act 12/19/2011 12/23/2011 [12/19/2011] No
P.L. 112-77, The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2012 12/21/2011 12/23/2011 [12/21/2011] No
P.L. 112-78, The Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011 12/23/2011 12/23/2011 No No
P.L. 112-79, The Sugar Loaf Fire Protection District Land Exchange Act of 2011 12/20/2011 12/23/2011 [12/20/2011] No
P.L. 112-80, A bill to amend title 39, United States Code, to extend the authority of the United States Postal Service to issue a semipostal to raise funds for breast cancer research 12/16/2011 12/23/2011 [12/16/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-81, The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 12/21/2011 12/31/2011 [12/21/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-82, The Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2011 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-83, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 20 Main Street in Little Ferry, New Jersey, as the “Sergeant Matthew J. Fenton Post Office” 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-84, To protect the safety of judges by extending the authority of the Judicial Conference to redact sensitive information contained in their financial disclosure reports, and for other purposes 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-85, To designate the property between the United States Federal Courthouse and the Ed Jones Building located at 109 South Highland Avenue in Jackson, Tennessee, as the “M.D. Anderson Plaza” and to authorize the placement of a historical/identification marker on the grounds recognizing the achievements and philanthropy of M.D. Anderson 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-86, The Risk-Based Security Screening for Members of The Armed Forces Act 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-87, The Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-88, To instruct the Inspector General of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to study the impact of insured depository institution failures, and for other purposes 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-89, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 45 Bay Street, Suite 2, in Staten Island, New York, as the “Sergeant Angel Mendez Post Office” 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-90, The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011 12/23/2011 1/3/2012 [12/27/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-91, The Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2012 1/30/2012 1/30/2012 [1/31/2012] No
P.L. 112-92, The SOAR Technical Corrections Act 1/26/2012 2/1/2012 [1/26/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-93, The Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012 1/30/2012 2/10/2012 [1/30/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-94, To redesignate the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge as the Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge 2/6/2012 2/14/2012 [2/6/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-95, The FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2011 2/8/2012 2/14/2012 [2/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-96, The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 2/22/2012 2/22/2012 [2/22/2012] No
P.L. 112-97, To provide the Quileute Indian Tribe Tsunami and Flood Protection, and for other purposes 2/16/2012 2/27/2012 [2/16/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-98, The Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011 3/1/2012 3/8/2012 [3/1/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-99, To apply the countervailing duty provisions of the Tariff Act of 1930 to nonmarket economy countries, and for other purposes 3/8/2012 3/13/2012 [3/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-100, The St. Croix River Crossing Project Authorization Act 3/6/2012 3/14/2012 [3/6/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-101, A bill to designate the United States courthouse located at 222 West 7th Avenue, Anchorage, Alaska, as the James M. Fitzgerald United States Courthouse 3/7/2012 3/14/2012 [3/7/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-102, The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 3/29/2012 3/30/2012 No No
P.L. 112-103, The HALE Scouts Act 3/22/2012 4/2/2012 [3/23/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-104, The United States Marshals Service 225th Anniversary Commemorative Coin Act 3/23/2012 4/2/2012 [3/23/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-105, The STOCK Act 3/28/2012 4/4/2012 [3/28/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-106, The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act 3/27/2012 4/5/2012 [3/27/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-107, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 500 East Whitestone Boulevard in Cedar Park, Texas, as the “Army Specialist Matthew Troy Morris Post Office Building” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-108, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 115 4th Avenue Southwest in Ardmore, Oklahoma, as the “Specialist Micheal E. Phillips Post Office” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-109, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 10 Main Street in East Rockaway, New York, as the “John J. Cook Post Office” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-110, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 801 West Eastport Street in Iuka, Mississippi, as the “Sergeant Jason W. Vaughn Post Office” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-111, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 67 Castle Street in Geneva, New York, as the “Corporal Steven Blaine Riccione Post Office” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-112, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 122 North Holderrieth Boulevard in Tomball, Texas, as the “Tomball Veterans Post Office” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-113, The Brian A. Terry Memorial Act 5/14/2012 5/15/2012 [5/14/2012] No
P.L. 112-114, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 8 West Silver Street in Westfield, Massachusetts, as the “William T. Trant Post Office Building” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-115, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 260 California Drive in Yountville, California, as the “Private First Class Alejandro R. Ruiz Post Office Building” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-116, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 15455 Manchester Road in Ballwin, Missouri, as the “Specialist Peter J. Navarro Post Office Building” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-117, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1100 Town and Country Commons in Chesterfield, Missouri, as the “Lance Corporal Matthew P. Pathenos Post Office Building” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 [5/8/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-118, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 112 South 5th Street in Saint Charles, Missouri, as the “Lance Corporal Drew W. Weaver Post Office Building” 5/8/2012 5/15/2012 No No
P.L. 112-119, A bill to authorize the Administrator of General Services to convey a parcel of real property in Tracy, California, to the City of Tracy 5/10/2012 5/15/2012 [5/10/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-120, To modify the Department of Defense Program Guidance relating to the award of Post-Deployment/Mobilization Respite Absence administrative absence days to members of the reserve components to exempt any member whose qualified mobilization commenced before October 1, 2011, and continued on or after that date, from the changes to the program guidance that took effect on that date 5/18/2012 5/25/2012 [5/18/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-121, The Temporary Bankruptcy Judgeships Extension Act of 2012 5/18/2012 5/25/2012 [5/18/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-122, The Export-Import Bank Reauthorization Act of 2012 5/21/2012 5/30/2012 [5/21/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-123, The National Flood Insurance Program Extension Act 5/31/2012 5/31/2012 [5/31/2012] No
P.L. 112-124, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 11 Dock Street in Pittston, Pennsylvania, as the “Trooper Joshua D. Miller Post Office Building” 5/29/2012 6/5/2012 [5/29/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-125, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 170 Evergreen Square SW in Pine City, Minnesota, as the “Master Sergeant Daniel L. Fedder Post Office” 5/29/2012 6/5/2012 [5/29/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-126, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1449 West Avenue in Bronx, New York, as the “Private Isaac T. Cortes Post Office” 5/29/2012 6/5/2012 [5/29/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-127, The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 5/29/2012 6/5/2012 [5/29/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-128, The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Backcountry Access Act 5/29/2011 6/5/2012 [5/29/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-129, To provide for the release of the reversionary interest held by the United States in certain land conveyed by the United States in 1950 for the establishment of an airport in Cook County, Minnesota 5/31/2012 6/8/2012 [5/31/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-130, To allow otherwise eligible Israeli nationals to receive E-2 nonimmigrant visas if similarly situated United States nationals are eligible for similar nonimmigrant status in Israel 5/31/2012 6/8/2012 [5/31/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-131, The John F. Kennedy Center Reauthorization Act of 2012 5/31/2012 6/8/2012 [5/31/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-132, A bill to allow the Chief of the Forest Service to award certain contracts for large air tankers 6/12/2012 6/13/2012 [6/12/2012] No
P.L. 112-133, The Salmon Lake Land Selection Resolution Act 6/7/2012 6/15/2012 [6/7/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-134, A bill to authorize the Secretary of Commerce to convey property of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the City of Pascagoula, Mississippi, and for other purposes 6/7/2012 6/15/2012 [6/7/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-135, To make a technical correction in Public Law 112-108 6/11/2012 6/21/2012 [6/11/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-136, To correct a technical error in Public Law 112-122 6/11/2012 6/21/2012 [6/11/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-137, A bill to modify a land grant patent issued by the Secretary of the Interior 6/20/2012 6/27/2012 [6/20/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-138, A bill to provide for the conveyance of certain parcels of land to the town of Alta, Utah 6/20/2011 6/27/2012 [6/20/2011] Yes
P.L. 112-139, The East Bench Irrigation District Water Contract Extension Act 6/20/2012 6/27/2012 [6/20/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-140, The Temporary Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 6/29/2012 6/29/2012 No No
P.L. 112-141, The Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012, Part II 7/2/2012 7/6/2012 [7/2/2012] No
P.L. 112-142, The Church Plan Investment Clarification Act 6/29/2012 7/9/2012 [7/9/2012] No
P.L. 112-143, To promote the development of the Southwest waterfront in the District of Columbia, and for other purposes 6/29/2012 7/9/2012 [7/9/2012] No
P.L. 112-144, The Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act 6/28/2012 7/9/2012 [6/29/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-145, The District of Columbia Special Election Reform Act 7/16/2012 7/18/2012 [7/16/2012] No
P.L. 112-146, The Former Charleston Naval Base Land Exchange Act of 2012 7/12/2012 7/18/2012 [7/12/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-147, The Veteran Skills to Jobs Act 7/19/2012 7/23/2012 [7/19/2012] No
P.L. 112-148, The Raoul Wallenberg Centennial Celebration Act 7/19/2012 7/26/2012 [7/19/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-149, The Insular Areas Act of 2011 7/19/2012 7/26/2012 [7/19/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-150, The United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012 7/19/2012 7/27/2012 [7/19/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-151, The HEARTH Act of 2011 7/19/2012 7/30/2012 [7/19/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-152, The National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act 7/25/2012 8/3/2012 [7/25/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-153, The Pilot’s Bill of Rights 7/26/2012 8/3/2012 [7/26/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-154, To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for certain requirements for the placement of monuments in Arlington National Cemetery, and for other purposes 8/3/2012 8/6/2012 No No
P.L. 112-155, The Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012 7/27/2012 8/7/2012 [7/27/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-156, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1021 Pennsylvania Avenue in Hartshorne, Oklahoma, as the “Warren Lindley Post Office” 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/10/2011] No
P.L. 112-157, To amend the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama and Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act to allow the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Tribe to determine blood quantum requirement for membership in that tribe 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 No No
P.L. 112-158, The Iran Threat Reduction Act of 2011 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-159, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 2810 East Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, Florida, as the “Reverend Abe Brown Post Office Building” 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-160, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 1421 Veterans Memorial Drive in Abbeville, Louisiana, as the “Sergeant Richard Franklin Abshire Post Office Building” 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-161, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 125 Kerr Avenue in Rome City, Indiana, as the “SPC Nicholas Scott Hartge Post Office” 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-162, To designate the facility of the United States Postal Service located at 150 South Union Street in Canton, Mississippi, as the “First Sergeant Landres Cheeks Post Office Building” 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-163, To amend the African Growth and Opportunity Act to extend the third-country fabric program and to add South Sudan to the list of countries eligible for designation under that Act, to make technical corrections to the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States relating to the textile and apparel rules of origin for the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement, to approve the renewal of import restrictions contained in the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003, and for other purposes 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-164, The La Pine Land Conveyance Act 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-165, The Wallowa Forest Service Compound Conveyance Act 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-166, The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 8/2/2012 8/10/2012 [8/2/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-167, A bill to authorize the Architect of the Capitol to establish battery recharging stations for privately owned vehicles in parking areas under the jurisdiction of the Senate at no net cost to the Federal Government 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-168, The Haqqani Network Terrorist Designation Act of 2011 8/2/2012 8/10/2012 [8/2/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-169, A bill to provide for the use of National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center Commemorative Coin surcharges, and for other purposes 8/3/2012 8/10/2012 [8/3/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-170, To authorize the Architect of the Capitol to establish battery recharging stations for privately owned vehicles in parking areas under the jurisdiction of the House of Representatives at no net cost to the Federal Government 8/7/2012 8/16/2012 [8/7/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-171, To require the Transportation Security Administration to comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act 8/7/2012 8/16/2012 [8/7/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-172, The Ambassador James R. Lilley and Congressman Stephen J. Solarz North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2012 8/7/2012 8/16/2012 [8/7/2012] Yes
P.L. 112-173, A bill to prevent harm to the national security or endangering the military officers and civilian employees to whom internet publication of certain information applies, and for other purposes 8/16/2012 8/16/2012 No No

[Brackets indicate a link from Whitehouse.gov to Thomas legislative database]

‡ Link to final version of bill on impossible-to-find page.

What We Can and Can’t Know About NSA Spying: A Reply to Prof. Cordero

Georgetown Law professor Carrie Cordero—who previously worked at the Department of Justice improving privacy procedures for monitoring under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—attended our event with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) on the FISA Amendments Act last week.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s rather more comfortable with the surveillance authorized by the law than our speakers were, and posted some critical commentary at the Lawfare blog (which is, incidentally, required reading for national security and intelligence buffs). Marcy Wheeler has already posted her own reply, but I’d like to hit a few points as well. Here’s Cordero:

Since at least the summer of 2011, [Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall] have been pushing the Intelligence Community to provide more public information about how the FAA works, and how it affects the privacy rights of Americans. In particular, they have, in a series of letters, requested that the Executive Branch provide an estimate of the number of Americans incidentally intercepted during the course of FAA surveillance. According to the exchanges of letters, the Executive Branch has repeatedly denied the request, on the basis that: i) it would be an unreasonable burden on the workforce (and, presumably, would take intelligence professionals off their national security mission); and ii) gathering the data the senators are requesting would, in and of itself, violate privacy rights of Americans.

The workforce argument, even if true, is, of course, a loser. The question of whether the data call itself would violate privacy rights is a more interesting one. Multiple oversight personnel independent of the operational and analytical wings of the Intelligence Community – including the Office of Management and Budget, the NSA Inspector General, and just last month, the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, have all said that the data call requested by the senators is not feasible. The other members of the SSCI appear to accept this claim on its face. Meanwhile, Senator Wyden states he just finds the claim unbelievable. That there must be some way it can be done, he says, if even on a sample basis. Maintaining that position puts him in an interesting place, however: is the privacy advocate actually advocating for violating the privacy rules, to appease a Congressional request? Assuming that he would not actually want to advocate that the rules be waived at the request of a politician, a question then arises as to whether the Intelligence Community has adequately explained exactly how the data call would work and why it would conflict with existing privacy rules and protections, such as minimization procedures.

I’ll grant Cordero this point: as absurd as it sounds to say “we can’t tell you how many Americans we’re spying on, because it would violate their privacy,” this might well be a concern if those of us who follow these issues from the outside are correct in our surmises about what NSA is doing under FAA authority. The only real restriction the law places on the initial interception of communications is that the NSA use “targeting procedures” designed to capture traffic to or from overseas groups and individuals. There’s an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence to suggest that initial acquisition is therefore extremely broad, with a large percentage of international communications traffic being fed into NSA databases for later querying. If that’s the case, then naturally the tiny subset of communications later reviewed by a human analyst—because they match far narrower criteria for suspicion—is going to be highly unrepresentative. To get even a rough statistical sample of what’s in the larger database, then, one would have to “inspect”—possibly using software—a whole lot of the innocent communications that wouldn’t otherwise ever be analyzed. And possibly the rules currently in place don’t make any allowance for querying the database—even to analyze metadata for the purpose of generating aggregate statistics—unless it’s directly related to an intelligence purpose.

A few points about this.  First: assuming, for the moment, that  this is the case, why can’t NSA and DOJ say so clearly and publicly? Because it would somehow imperil national security to characterize the surveillance program even at this highest level of generality, without any mention of particular search parameters or targets? Would it “help the terrorists” if they answered a more recent query from a bipartisan group of senators, asking whether database searches (as opposed to initial “targeting”) had focused on specific American citizens?  Please.

A  more plausible hypothesis is that they recognize that an official, public acknowledgement that the government is routinely copying and warehousing millions of completely innocent communications—even if they’re only looking at the “suspicious” minority— would not go over entirely smoothly with the citizenry. There might even be a demand for some public debate about whether this is the kind of thing we’re willing to countenance. Legal scholars might become curious whether whatever arguments support the constitutionality of this practice hold up as well in the light of the day as they do when they’re made unopposed in closed chambers. Even without an actual estimate, any meaningful discussion of the workings of the program would be likely to undermine the whole pretense that it only “incidentally” involves the communications of innocent Americans, or that the constraints on “targeting”constitute a meaningful safeguard.  The desire to avoid the whole hornet’s nest using the pretext of national security is perhaps understandable, but it shouldn’t be acceptable in a democracy. Yet everyone knows overclassification is endemic—even the government’s own former “classification czar” has blasted the government’s use of inappropriate secrecy as a weapon against critics.

Second, transparency at this level of generality is an essential component of privacy protection. To the extent that the rules governing  access to the database preclude any attempt to audit its aggregate contents—including by automated software tallying of identifiers such as area codes and IP addresses—then they should indeed be changed, not because a senator demanded it, but because they otherwise preclude adequate oversight. An online service that keeps no server logs would be somewhat more protective of its users privacy… if  its database were otherwise perfectly secure against intrusion or misuse. In the real world, where there’s no such thing as perfect security, such a service would be protecting user privacy extremely poorly, because it would lack the ability to detect and prevent breaches. If it is not possible to audit the NSA’s system in this way, then that system needs to be altered until it is possible. If giving Congress a rough sense of the extent of the agency’s surveillance of Americans falls outside the parameters of the intelligence mission (and therefore the permissible uses of the database), it’s time for a new mission statement.

Finally, Cordero closes by noting the SSCI has touted its own oversight as “extensive” and “robust,” which Cordero thinks “debunks” the  suggestion embedded in our event title that the FAA enables “mass spying without accountability.”  (Can I debunk the debunking by lauding the accuracy and thoroughness of my own analysis?)  Unfortunately, the consensus of most independent analysts of the intelligence committees’ performance is a good deal less sanguine—which makes me hesitant to take that self-assessment at face value.

As scholars frequently point out, the overseers are asked to process incredibly complex information with a limited cleared staff to assist them, and often forbidden to take notes at briefings or remove reports from secure facilities. When you read about those extensive reports, recall that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq only six senators and a handful of representatives ever read past the executive summary of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD programs to the far more qualified language of the  full 92-page report. You might think the intel committees would need to hold more hearings than their counterparts to compensate for these disadvantages, but UCLA’s Amy Zegart has found that they consistently rank at the bottom of the pack, year after year. Little wonder, then, that years of flagrant and systemic misuse of another controversial surveillance tool—National Security Letters—was not uncovered by the “extensive” and “robust” oversight of the intelligence committees, but by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

In any event, we seem to have at least 13 senators who don’t believe they’ve been provided with enough information to perform their oversight role adequately. Perhaps they’re setting the bar too high, but I find it more likely that their colleagues—who over time naturally grow to like and trust the intelligence officials upon whom they rely for their information—are a bit too easily satisfied. There are no  prizes for expending time, energy, and political capital on ferreting out civil liberties problems in covert intelligence programs, least of all in an election year. It’s far easier to be satisfied with whatever data the intelligence community deigns to dribble out—often with heroic indifference to statutory reporting deadlines—and take it on faith that everything’s running as smoothly as they say. That allows you to write, and even believe, that you’re conducting “robust” oversight without knowing (as Wyden’s letter suggests the committee members do not) roughly how many Americans are being captured in NSA’s database, how many purely-domestic communications have been intercepted,  whether warrantless “backdoor” targeting of Americans is being done via the selection of database queries. But the public need not be so easily satisfied, nor accept that meaningful “accountability” exists when all those extensive reports leave the overseers ignorant of so many basic facts.

OMB’s Laggard Transparency Record

On Monday, I wrote about the rapidly growing movement to replace the Office of Management and Budget with a different coordinator for standardized publication of government spending data. Why? Because the OMB hasn’t been standardizing and publishing data about government spending. That’s why.

Yesterday, Kaitlin Lee posted a three-part indictment of the OMB on the Sunlight Foundation blog, called “OMB’s Commitment to Data Quality: Too Little, Too Late.” Lee is deeply knowledgeable in this area and extraordinarily patient with the data problems the government throws at her. Credit what you read in her blog post.

(See also the Data Transparency Coalition’s rebuttal of OMB controller Danny Werfel, who appears to be guiding the Obama administration toward opposition to spending data transparency.)

The drumbeat for better data is growing louder, it’s pan-ideological, and it’s non-partisan. Will the OMB preempt the DATA Act by moving forward with real data reforms, or will Congress preempt the OMB’s role?

On Transparent Data: Use It or Lose It, OMB

At a recent event on “lessons learned” from the Recovery Act, Earl Devaney, who served as chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, talked about the “crying need for data standardization in government.” (35:00) Good data wouldn’t only help expose waste, fraud, and abuse. It would help prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

“There was so much sunlight on [Recovery Act] money,” he said, “that the bad guys just sort of said to themselves, ‘Well, we’ll just continue to steal Medicare money…’.” (38:25) That’s entertaining stuff.

But the really interesting comments came from Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Management and Budget. He criticized the DATA Act, which would create an independent commission to standardize federal spending data. (40:30) “Slammed” it, according to Federal Computer Week.

The OMB has effective and transparent processes in place to create rules for agencies to follow in obligating and spending funds, Werfel said, and it has a history of working with agencies to do so. A new commission would add “a new layer of regulation.” Why would we not “leverage the existing instruments of government”?

Here’s why: The OMB still has not produced a machine-readable organization chart for the federal government. There is still no authoritative and reliable set of identifiers computers can use to identify even the top two layers of the federal bureaucracy: agencies and bureaus.

If the OMB can’t do this utterly basic stuff, if it can’t come up with standard identifiers for the programs underneath agencies and bureaus, and if it can’t create a uniform process for identifying and tracking awards and outlays of taxpayer dollars, there may not be as much there to “leverage” as we thought.

President Obama came into office promising great strides in transparency. By the end of his third year in office, he complied with his Sunlight Before Signing campaign promise just 52.4% of the time. President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget publishes the government’s top-level organization chart in a disorderly PDF document.

Why wouldn’t the public go looking for a replacement?

Data Transparency Coalition Debuts Today

Meet the Data Transparency Coalition.

The Washington Post’s Capitol Business blog reports this morning:

A small but growing collection of companies has formed a coalition that will push the federal government to establish a standard system by which agencies categorize their data. …

“Our members understand that if the government identified its data elements in consistent ways, there would be vast new opportunities for the tools that they are building,” Executive Director Hudson Hollister said.

Early supporters include Microsoft and data analysis and management firms Level One Technologies, Teradata, and BrightScope. I’m on their Board of Advisors. One of their early priorities will be to pass H.R. 2146, the DATA Act.

Cato has worked extensively on government transparency, beginning with our December 2008 policy forum entitled, “Just Give Us the Data! Prospects for Putting Government Information to Revolutionary New Uses.”

We have modeled much of the data that the government should be publishing in standardized formats (much more cheaply than CBO has estimated it would cost) and graded the quality of current data publication in the areas of congressional process and budgeting, appropriating, and spending. Expect improvements to come with this new organization joining other efforts.

Follow the coalition’s founder and executive director on Twitter @hudsonhollister, and you can Like their Facebook page, as well, to get updates that way.