Tag: white house

President Obama’s New E.O.: Open Data, Not Government Transparency

There’s a powerful irony lurking underneath the executive order and OMB memorandum on open data that the White House released in tandem today: We don’t have data that tells us what agencies will carry out these policies.

It’s nice that the federal government will work more assiduously to make available the data it collects and creates. And what President Obama’s executive order says is true: “making information resources easy to find, accessible, and usable can fuel entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery that improves Americans’ lives and contributes significantly to job creation.” GPS and weather data are the premier examples.

But government transparency was the crux of the president’s 2008 campaign promises, and it is still the rightful expectation of the public. Government transparency is not produced by making interesting data sets available. It’s produced by publishing data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results.

Today’s releases make few, if any, nods to that priority. They don’t go to the heart of transparency, but threaten to draw attention away from the fact that basic data about our government, including things as fundamental as the organization of the executive branch of government, are not available as open data.

Yes, there is still no machine-readable government organization chart. This was one of the glaring faults we found when we graded the publication practices of Congress and the executive branch last year, and this fault remains. The coders who may sift through data published by various agencies, bureaus, programs, and projects can’t sift through data reflecting what those organizational units of government are.

Compare today’s policy announcements to events coming up on Capitol Hill in the next two weeks.

On Thursday next week (May 16), the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will host a “DATA Demonstration Day” to illustrate to Congress and the media how technology may cut waste and improve oversight if federal spending data is structured and transparent. (That would include my hobby-horse, the machine-readable federal government organization chart.) We’ll be there demo-ing how we add data to the bills Congress publishes.

On May 22nd, the House Administration Committee is hosting its 2013 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. This is an event at which various service providers to the House will announce not just policies, but recent, new, and upcoming improvements in publication of data about the House and its deliberations. (We’ll be there, too.)

The administration’s open data announcements are entirely welcome. Some good may come from these policies, and they certainly do no harm (barring procurement boondoggles–which, alas, is a major caveat). But I hope this won’t distract from the effort to produce government transparency, which I view as quite different from the subject of the new executive order and memorandum. The House of Representatives still seems to be moving forward on government transparency with more alacrity.

A ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’: Second Verse, Same as the First

The White House announces a “privacy bill of rights” today. We went over this a year ago, when Senators Kerry (D-MA) and McCain (R-AZ) introduced their “privacy bill of rights.”

The post is called “The ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ Is in the Bill of Rights,” and its admonitions apply equally well today:

It takes a lot of gall to put the moniker “Privacy Bill of Rights” on legislation that reduces liberty in the information economy while the Fourth Amendment remains tattered and threadbare. Nevermind “reasonable expectations”: the people’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures is worn down to the nub.

Senators Kerry and McCain [and now the White House] should look into the privacy consequences of the Internal Revenue Code. How is privacy going to fare under Obamacare? How is the Department of Homeland Security doing with its privacy efforts? What is an “administrative search”?

McConnell’s Cave-In and Boehner’s Opportunity

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has offered the president a way to raise the debt ceiling by $2.5 trillion without having to cut spending. The WaPo reports that “McConnell’s strategy makes no provision for spending cuts to be enacted.”

This appears to be an epic cave-in and completely at odds with McConnell’s own pronouncements in recent months that major budget reforms must be tied to any debt-limit increase.

House Republicans should obviously reject McConnell’s surrender, and they should do what they should have done months ago. They should put together a package of $2 trillion in real spending cuts taken straight from the Obama fiscal commission report and pass it through the House tied to a debt-limit increase of $2 trillion. Then they shouldn’t budge unless the White House and/or the Senate produce their own $2 trillion packages of real spending cuts, which could be the basis of negotiating a final spending-cut deal.

For those who say that House tea party members won’t vote for a debt increase, I’d say that $2 trillion in spending cuts looks a lot better than the alternative of having Democrats and liberal Republicans doing an end-run around them with McConnell’s no-cut plan.

For those who say that House members are scared of voting for specific spending cuts, I’d say that they’ve already done it by passing the Paul Ryan budget plan. I’d also say that you can’t claim to be the party of spending cuts without voting for spending cuts.

Obama’s Fiscal Commission handed Republicans ready-made spending cuts on a silver platter—Republicans will never get better political cover for insisting on spending cuts than now.

All-Consuming Politics

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s announcement today that he will not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and the reason he gave for his decision, the right call?

My response:

Gov. Barbour’s explanation for why he will not seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination – because a candidate today “is embracing a ten-year commitment to an all-consuming effort, to the virtual exclusion of all else,” and he cannot make such a commitment – is not only refreshingly candid but points to a much deeper problem.

We are moving inexorably not simply to news but to politics 24/7/365. And what better example than our current part-time president who, with no primary challenger in sight, is already on the campaign trail (did he ever leave it?), when the election is 19 months away. Some of us are old enough to remember when elected officials served – and ran for office or reelection only around election time.

Part of the reason for the change is the need today for vast amounts of campaign cash. But the deeper reason, I submit, is because politics has taken over so much of life. When government was more limited, and we didn’t look to it to provide our every need and want, those who “governed” didn’t feel such a need to cater to us – and we had better things to do anyway than obsess over politics. Calvin Coolidge took naps in the White House – in his pajamas! Imagine that today.

Return to Debt Mountain

Last year I noted that the White House Office of Management and Budget homepage featured a call from the president to “invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt.” Yet, the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of his then-current budget proposal showed that publicly held debt as a share of GDP would rise like the steep slope of a mountain under his policies.

The president’s latest budget proposal was released in February, and according to the CBO’s preliminary analysis, Obama would once again leave “our people” with a mountain of debt:

Given that the quote is clearly embarrassing, one would think that the White House would have taken it down by now. But it’s still there.

Are Mortgages Cheaper in the U.S.?

As Congress and the White House continue to debate the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, one of the oft heard concerns is that if we eliminate all the various mortgage subsidies in our system, then the cost of a mortgage will increase.  There certainly is a basic logic to that concern.  After all, why have subsidies if they don’t lower the price of the subsidized good.  Of course some, if not all, of said subsidy could be eaten up by the providers/producers of that good.

All this begs the question, with all the subsidies we have for mortgage finance, are mortgages actually cheaper in the U.S.?  While not perfect, one way of answering that question is to look at mortgage rates in other countries.   Although every developed country has some sort of government intervention in their mortgage market, almost all have considerably less support then that provided by the U.S.  (For a useful comparison of international differences see Michael Lea’s paper).

The European Mortgage Federation regularly collects information on mortgage pricing by EU countries.   The latest complete annual data from the EMF’s Hypostat database is for 2009, with at least a decade of historical data.

A quick glance reveals that mortgage rates in most European countries are not all that different than rates in the U.S.  For instance in 2009, the U.S. 30 year mortgage rate was, on average, 5.04; whereas mortgages in France averaged 4.6 and those in Germany averaged 4.29.  In the UK, the average was 4.34.

Part of this difference is driven by product type.  For instance, in France, most mortgages tend to be 15 year, which one would expect to be cheaper than a 30 year.  But the French 15 year rate of 4.6 isn’t all that different from the current U.S. 15 year rate of 4.1.  As lending rates are usually bench-marked off the rate on government debt, part of the slightly higher rate in some European countries is due to their higher government borrowing rate.  If we instead measure mortgage costs as a spread over government funding costs (as reported by the OECD), then many European countries look more affordable than the U.S.  For instance, German mortgages price about 100 basis points over long-term German govt debt; whereas U.S. mortgages price about 140 basis points over long-term U.S. government debt.

I don’t expect these numbers to settle the debate.  A variety of other costs, such as points paid or required downpayments, differ dramatically across countries.  Unfortunately that data does not seem to be readily available.  What the preceding comparison does suggest, however, is that even without Fannie and Freddie, U.S. mortgage rates aren’t necessarily going to be a lot higher.

On Egypt’s Transition

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

At his press conference this afternoon, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs distanced the Obama administration from former Egypt envoy Frank Wisner’s suggestion over the weekend that Hosni Mubarak should stay in power as Egypt transitions to a new government. Was Wisner, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, right about that and about the potential for a power vacuum?

My response:

Wisner was half right, but on the Mubarak half he was almost certainly wrong. Transitions are messy – at best. Ask the French about theirs two centuries and more ago. Occasionally they’re done pursuant to existing constitutions. Ours from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution wasn’t, despite which it wasn’t all that messy. We were lucky. We had a relatively healthy culture and strong leaders, even if the early years were often touch and go, as we sometimes forget.

It appears, from press accounts, that the current Egyptian constitution does not provide for the kind of transition that many would like to see. If so, then extra-constitutional measures will need to be taken, including perhaps the drafting and ratification of a new or at least an interim constitution, or more likely some less formal arrangement through which interim authority can be brought into being with a semblance of legitimacy about it – whether a new government or a new constitution and ratification process. A simple call for elections is too simple: by whom, under what procedures, to fill what offices, in what institutions?

All of this is where politics in its most elemental form comes to the fore, for better or worse, as the French saw to their horror. It’s the ultimate test of a culture. So Wisner was right about “the potential for a power vacuum” – although in Egypt the army is likely to fill that vacuum – and in recognizing that a vacuum should be avoided, if possible. But he was likely wrong to suggest that Mubarak should fill that vacuum or serve as a transitional figure since it appears that he no longer has the credibility to do so. Ideally, leaders with credibility need to emerge, and soon.

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