Transparency and Its Discontents

Remember when you had to wait until the end of the month to see your bank statement?

Last week, on the cusp of failing to pass any annual appropriations bills ahead of the October 1 start of the new fiscal year, congressional leaders came up with a short-term government funding bill (or “continuing resolution”) that would fund the government until November 18th. For whatever reason, that deal (H.R. 2608) wasn’t ready to go before the end of the week, so Congress passed an even shorter-term continuing resolution (H.R. 2017) that funds the government until tomorrow, October 4th.

Every weekend, I hunch over my computer and update key records in the database of WashingtonWatch.com, a government transparency website I run as a non-partisan, non-ideological resource (disclosure: it’s my own, not a Cato project). Then I put a summary of what’s going on into an email like this one (subscribe!) that goes out to 7,000 or so of my closest friends.

Last weekend, the Library of Congress’ THOMAS website, which is one of my resources, was down a good chunk of the time for maintenance. Even after it came up again, some materials such as bill text and committee reports weren’t available. (They had come up by the wee hours this morning.) Maintenance is necessary sometimes, though when the service provider I use for the WashingtonWatch.com email does maintenance, it’s usually for an hour or so in the middle of a weekend night.

But when I went to update the database to reflect last week’s passage of H.R. 2017, I could find no record of its public law number. When a bill becomes a law, it gets a public law number starting with the number of the Congress that passed and then a sequential number, like Public Law No. 112-29. The Government Printing Office’s FDsys system lets you browse public laws. At this writing, it isn’t updated to reflect the passage of new laws last week. When THOMAS came back up, its public laws page also had no data to reflect the passage of that continuing resolution last week (and still doesn’t, also at this writing).

There is barely any news reporting on humdrum details about governing like the passage of a law expending $40 billion in taxpayer funds. (That’s about what H.R. 2017 spends to operate the government four more days, roughly $400 per U.S. family.) Where can you confirm with an official source that this happened?

The winning data resource this week, if by default, is Whitehouse.gov, which has a page dedicated to laws the president has signed. That page says that President Obama signed four new laws on Friday (Sept. 30). When might FDsys or THOMAS reflect this information? It’ll happen soon, and that data will start to propagate out to society.

But I think that’s not soon enough. A couple of days’ delay is a big deal.

If I were to take $400 in cash out of my bank account at an ATM, I could review that transaction from that instant forward on my bank’s website. If I had a concern or even a passing interest, I could just go look. That is an utterly unremarkable service in this day and age.

But it’s remarkable that such a service doesn’t exist in systems that are as important as our bank accounts. When Congress and the president pass a bill to spend $40 billion dollars, the fact of its passage is pretty much undocumented by any official sources until enough Mon-Fri, 9-to-5 work hours have passed.

In my recently published paper, Publication Practices for Transparent Government, I go through the things the government should do to make itself more transparent (thus improving public oversight and producing lots of felicitous outcomes). A practice I cite is “real-time or near-real-time publication.” Why? Because then any of the 300 million Americans who have an interest, real or passing, can see what is happening with their money as it happens, just like they can with their bank holdings. People like me (and many more) can propagate complete and timely information, making it that much more accessible.

When you’re talking about a potential audience of 200 million people and $40 billion in expense (one of the tiniest spending bills—others are much larger), it is not too much to ask to have the data published in real time.

I don’t expect a lot of people to join me at the barricades with pitchforks and torches on this one. Government transparency is an area ruled by implicit demand. People don’t know what they are missing, so they don’t know to suffer a sense of deprivation. I do that for them—all of them. (Heroic, idn’t it?)

Before too long, though, the government’s opacity will be recognized as a contributor to the public’s general—and strong—distaste for all that goes on in Washington, D.C. The idea of spending $400 per U.S. family without documenting every detail of it on the Internet will seem as absurd as waiting until the end of the month to see what happened in your bank account.