Tag: white house

Appointees Are Like Astronauts

Did you ever notice how astronauts are praised simply for being astronauts? They have heroism imputed to them simply for what they might do in the future.

So it is with political appointees, such as the chief technology officer President Obama named Saturday morning during his weekly radio and Internet address. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Silicon Valley execs and tech bloggers sounded genuinely excited about Obama’s choice Saturday morning and tech industry lobbying groups TechNet and the Business Software Alliance quickly released statements of support, as did several tech heavyweights.

Would any group with business before the government, hoping for influence and goodies from the White House, not praise an appointee? We learn from these paeans precisely nothing.

To me, Aneesh Chopra is an empty vessel. He looks like a nice person and appears to have suitable experience for the job he’s been named to. My substantive comments about him will wait until there is something on which to comment. I look forward to his first space-walk.

A Flagging Obama Transparency Effort

President Obama made some very firm commitments about transparency as a campaigner. Among other things, he promised to post bills online for five days before he signs them. This promise has been fulfilled just once - and in that case, only arguably.

The Obama campaign Web site promised “Sunlight Before Signing:

Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.”

To a roar of approval, President Obama pledged on the campaign trail: “[W]hen there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.”

Here’s a look at the White House’s uneven efforts to fulfill that promise:

Of the eleven bills President Obama has signed, only six have been posted on Whitehouse.gov. None have been posted for a full five days after presentment from Congress.

One bill, the DTV Delay Act, was posted after it was cleared for presentment by Congress February 4th, with the President signing it February 11th. This arguably satisfies the five-day promise, though presentment - a constitutional step in the legislative process - would be a better time to start the five-day clock. (Congress presented it February 9th.)

Several times the White House has posted a bill while it remains in Congress, attempting to satisfy the five-day rule. But this doesn’t give the public an opportunity to review the final legislation - especially any last minute amendments. Versions of the children’s health insurance legislation, the omnibus spending bill, and the omnibus public land management bill were linked to from Whitehouse.gov while making their ways through Congress, but not posted in final form.

(The page linking to the omnibus spending bill was not highlighted in the White House blog or anywhere else on Whitehouse.gov I could find. The only evidence I found of when it was posted comes from Web commentary.)

Is five days too much to ask? The President did allow for an emergency exception, and it would not be appropriate to hold off signing a bill if life and health were immediately threatened.

The President signed a couple of bills with deadlines pressing. These were the continuing resolution, the omnibus spending bill, and the extensions of immigration and small business programs. Congress produced the crush, though, with its timing in passing the bills; the deadlines were not a product of extrinsic forces or emergencies. (A firmly enforced five-day rule would cause Congress to pass bills five days earlier when programs were expiring - after much tribulation about who is responsible when a program lapses for failure to timely reauthorize it, of course.)

Despite the economic conditions, the Recovery Act was not treated as emergency legislation by Congress or the President. Congress waited three days after its Friday passage to present it to the President, and he enjoyed a weekend visit to Chicago before signing the bill four days after it passed (one day after presentment) in Denver.

The President has signed most bills within a day or two of their presentment from Congress, violating his campaign promise. He has signed two bills more than five days after presentment, but - ironically, because it preserves the broken promise - not posted them on Whitehouse.gov.

 

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

Canned Transparency

President Obama took a step toward making his administration more participatory and interactive Thursday. He answered questions that had been submitted to him in a program the White House calls “Open for Questions.”

Everyday Americans submitted questions, including video questions, and rated the questions of others to help determine which the president would answer. The questions he answered, of course, were the ones he and his staff chose.

President Obama promised to make his administration the most open and transparent in history, and taking questions from the public kind of looks like that. But it also kind of looks like a gimmicky, canned publicity stunt, rather than true openness in government.

Real transparency would include fulfilling his campaign promise to post bills online for five days before signing them. The president has now signed 10 bills into law and not subjected any of them to that five-day public review.

Who Owns Cybersecurity?

There is a government brawl underway over cybersecurity.

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) is legally responsible for cybersecurity for nonmilitary parts of the government. It is also supposed to help state and local government and the private sector protect their networks. But Shaun Waterman reports that the guy running that center just quit because the National Security Agency (the wiretapping intelligence agency) was basically running his office and taking over its function.

According to Walter Pincus’ article in today’s Washington Post, Strategic Command (the nuclear weapons command) is in charge of offensive cyber attacks and defending US military networks from cyberattack. But the NSA oversees Stratcom’s cybersecurity activities, somehow or other.

The White House is conducting a 60-day cybersecurity review, which is being led by an official in the office of Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence. Blair wants a bigger role for U.S. intelligence agencies in cybersecurity. Presumably that means the NSA, which employs some of the nation’s leading cryptographers. Meanwhile, Obama is likely to give General Keith Alexander, head of NSA, his fourth star and make him the White House’s cybersecurity coordinator (aka, the cyberczar).

So it sounds like the review may be moot – the decks are stacked for the NSA to take over. The Federal Times, however, reports that Congress may upset those plans.  Congressmen on the homeland security committee still want DHS in the lead.

What about private networks? The White House Review will address that too. Alexander has said that the NSA should play a role. But right now, according to most people, it’s DHS’s job. Pincus writes, “Responsibility of protecting civilian networks currently rests with the Department of Homeland Security.”

I would have thought it rests with the network operators. Missing in this debate, from what I can tell, is any attempt to outline what public goods are at play. Clearly, the federal government should defend its own networks. (Whether it should do so through the leadership of agency recently engaged in vast illegal activity is less clear.) The feds should probably also collect intelligence about cyberattacks, make it available to the public and pursue perpetrators. But providing security to private entities, through technology transfers or consultation, seems akin to providing locks to homeowners. That may be too simple – and the relevant distinction may be whether we are talking about state or non-state threats – but it’s something that the review should consider.

Here’s more on the great cybersecurity freakout.

To Reform Health Care, Obama Must First Convince His Advisers

In The New Republic, Jonathan Cohn makes some interesting observations about how Barack Obama’s campaign and administration approach policy issues, particularly health care.

In early January, most of Barack Obama’s senior staff assembled with the president-elect … It was a pivotal moment in Obama’s transformation from candidate to commander-in-chief. Obama’s advisers had taken all of his campaign pledges, factored in his promise to reduce the deficit, and put together a provisional blueprint for governing. For the first time, Obama would get a sense of how his proposals fit together in the real world.

Does Cohn suggest that candidate Obama just threw out proposals without considering their cumulative, real-world impact?  That Obama launched a new administration with insufficient planning??  Perish the thought.

Obama … said he was mostly happy with what his advisers had produced. Investments in energy and education, plus real progress on reducing the deficit–it was all in there, Obama noted. But then the president-elect turned to his one major concern: a key item that was not, in his opinion, sufficiently funded. “Here’s my guidance to you,” one participant recalls Obama saying to the group. “Protect health care.”

It wasn’t the first time that health care had seemed to get short shrift from Obama’s advisers. Nor would it be the last. Indeed, there were moments during the transition and the early weeks of the administration when it appeared that the push for comprehensive health care reform might collapse before it had even begun. During this time, a debate raged inside the administration, with some senior officials arguing that the new president should wade into health care gingerly–or even postpone it altogether–because it would cost too much, distract from other priorities, and carry huge political risks.

Ultimately, however, these arguments failed to carry the day, and health care reform, against what occasionally seemed like long odds, managed to find a sizeable place in Obama’s budget…

The divide among Obama’s counselors was never over whether to pursue health care reform or even what it should look like in the end … What divided Obama’s team was the question of how to pursue reform–in particular, how quickly.

That tension stretched back to the campaign, when Obama’s political strategists advised him to soft-pedal the topic. One of them was David Axelrod. Although personally acquainted with the flaws in our health care system because of his disabled daughter, he also understood public opinion: The middle-class voters whose support politicians covet were worried about the cost of insurance, but their enthusiasm for universal coverage seemed shallow. Obama, though, always insisted on keeping health care prominent in the election.

Why so much dissension in the ranks? Partly because the nation faces much more immediate problems.

Axelrod’s anxiety hadn’t dissipated since the election. And now he had a new ally in Larry Summers, whom Obama had appointed to head the National Economic Council. One concern for Summers was the diversion of presidential and staff attention from other issues, like the economy.

But the dissension is also because Obama’s advisers understand just how difficult it will be to achieve universal coverage.

Mostly, though, Summers worried about money. Experts generally believe it will take years before better use of information technology, more preventive care, and other reforms start to yield serious savings. At least in the short run, health care reform is therefore likely to add to the government’s financial burden–during a time of rising deficits. This made Summers uncomfortable.

How bad was the dissension?

Particularly in Obama’s absence, the voices of the skeptics often predominated. “It was scaring the hell out of the rest of us,” says one of the advisers who favored more aggressive action.

Ultimately, Obama insisted on putting $634 billion in his budget to fund health care reform.  But Cohn acknowledges that Obama may be over-reaching.

At a time when the economy is collapsing, perhaps Obama can’t afford the distraction of such a major policy effort; at a time when the government is pumping out so much money for other priorities, perhaps it’s foolish to incur a new obligation that, if carried out by the book, still may not pay for itself in under ten years. And, even if it makes sense to seek health care reform this year, Obama’s decision to allocate health care money now could make the budget tougher to pass–inviting an extra political fight that might make reform even harder to achieve.

Nice thing about Cohn: he may be a high priest in the Church of Universal Coverage.  But he’s a darned good journalist.

A Federal Takeover of Cyber Security?

One hopes not. But the White House’s 60-day review of cyber security, ongoing now, could set the stage for it.

In a TechKnowledge piece out today, I argue against federal responsibility for private cyber security. A common law liability regime is the best route to discovering and patching security flaws in all the implements of our information economy and society.

The smarties at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton recently sat down to discuss these issues too.

Week in Review: A School Choice Victory, Earmark Reform, and Drug Violence in Mexico

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Obama Dips a Toe in the Educational Choice Pool

After Congress voted to let the Washington D.C. voucher program expire, stripping 1,700 low-income children of the opportunity to attend private schools, President Obama said he will keep the program afloat in subsequent legislation.

“It wouldn’t make sense to disrupt the education of those that are in that system,” said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. “And I think we’ll work with Congress to ensure that a disruption like that doesn’t take place.”

Andrew J. Coulson, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom, commented on Obama’s decision to continue to extend school choice benefits to underprivileged children in the nation’s capital:

This is a crucial milestone. There is finally a major national Democratic leader who is beginning to catch up to his state-level peers. Democrats all around the country have been supporting and signing small education tax credit programs because they realize that these programs are win-win: good for their constituents and good for their long-term political futures.

In an op-ed that ran the day Gibbs made the announcement, Coulson explained why those who oppose school choice will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

In 2006, Susan Aud and Leon Michos published a report on the fiscal impact of the D.C. voucher program, which documented the success of the District’s school choice pilot, the first federally funded voucher program in the United States.

Obama Signs Earmark-Heavy $410 Billion Omnibus Bill

After signing a bill that had nearly $8 billion in earmarks, President Obama declared that from then on, his administration would work toward earmark reform.

Sounds a bit like St. Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, make me chaste but not just yet,” said Daniel Griswold, director of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies:

Recall that as a candidate, Obama said he and Democratic leaders in Congress would change the “business as usual” practice of stuffing spending bills with pet projects. Those earmarks, submitted by individual members to fund obscure projects in their own districts and states, typically become law without any debate or transparency.

Saying he would sign the “imperfect bill,” President Obama offered guidelines to curb earmarks … in the future. “The future demands that we operate in a different way than we have in the past,” he said. “So let there be no doubt: this piece of legislation must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability.”

Lord, make us fiscally responsible, but not just yet.

Meanwhile, Republican leaders are condemning the president’s expansion of the federal government. But do they have any standing to judge? Senior Fellow Michael D. Tanner said no:

The Bush administration’s brand of big-government conservatism was, at the very least, the greatest expansion of government from Lyndon Johnson to, well, Barack Obama.

For Cato’s policy recommendations on earmarked spending, see the “Corporate Welfare and Earmark Reform” chapter in the 2009 Cato Handbook for Policymakers.

Violence Spills into the U.S. from Mexico’s Drug War

With daily reports of increased violence coming from Mexico, Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies Ted Galen Carpenter said the brutality is an indicator of power and arrogance, not desperation, and asserts that gun restrictions in the U.S. will not subdue violence:

The notion that the violence in Mexico would subside if the United States had more restrictive laws on firearms is devoid of logic and evidence. Mexican drug gangs would have little trouble obtaining all the guns they desire from black market sources in Mexico and elsewhere…

… Even assuming that the Mexican government’s estimate that 97 percent of the weapons used by the cartels come from stores and gun shows in the United States-and Mexican officials are not exactly objective sources for such statistics-the traffickers rely on those outlets simply because they are easier and more convenient, not because there are no other options.

Carpenter spoke at a Cato policy forum last month, and explained why the war on drugs sparks such intense levels of violence.

In a Policy Analysis published in early February, Carpenter warned of the need to change our policy on the Mexican drug conflict, so as to prevent the violence from spreading across the border.