February 8, 2009 12:13PM

Obama Transparency Update

President Obama may yet mend his first broken campaign promise — to post the legislation Congress sends him online for five days before he signs it.

In a statement to Politifact, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said, "We will be implementing this policy in full soon; currently we are working through implementation procedures and some initial issues with the congressional calendar."

(I don't think the congressional calendar has much to do with it. More likely, White House staff and perhaps President Obama himself didn't take the promise seriously in the months running up to his inauguration. They could have been ready, but evidently didn't plan to post bills for five days before signing until they heard about it from the public.)

For a time, it appeared that the administration would weasel out of the promise with a half-measure — posting bills on Whitehouse.gov while they made their way through Congress. But the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal called that out as error. Vietor's statement puts to rest the concern that the White House will break the promise with such half-measures.

An important question, of course, is "Why?" Aren't bills sent to the president faits accomplis? No, they're not. As I said in a post on Tech Liberation Front:

If the White House were to implement the promised practice of leaving bills sitting out there, unsigned, after they pass Congress, that would have significant effects. The practice would threaten to reveal excesses in parochial amendments and earmarks which could bring down otherwise good bills. President Obama’s promised five-day cooling off period would force the House and Senate to act with more circumspection.

Lawmakers' political-risk sensors are well tuned, and none of them want to bring down a bill regarded as important because it contains something the public regards as foolish.

Blumenthal also points out (in the comments) that the White House practice of posting bills online could pressure Congress to follow a similar path, "which would have a much greater effect than the President posting bills." Indeed, it would.

And sure enough, a campaign is on to get the Senate to wait five days before voting on the deficit spending bill (sometimes referred to as an "economic stimulus" bill). A 778-page compromise amendment was made available in the wee hours of Sunday morning with a vote planned for Monday afternoon at 5:30 p.m. — something like 40 hours later, most of them falling on a weekend.

And last week, a group of leading House Republicans wrote to the Speaker asking that the omnibus spending bill be posted online. (With "TARP" and the deficit-spending/economic stimulus bill capturing all the attention, most funding decisions for the regular operations of the government haven't been made. Congress kicked them over to March back in September, and hundreds of billions more in spending will be moving through Congress in the next couple of weeks.)

Another "Why?" is effectively asked by my colleague Tad Dehaven. Why the focus on transparency when we should be working simply to reduce the size and wastefulness of government? (Tad puts it more stirringly: "[W]hether you get incinerated by a bomb dropped from 50,000 feet in the air or go before a firing squad in which you know the name, rank, and serial number of the shooters, the result is the same.")

The broad public and electorate don't necessarily know that government is as large and wasteful as we libertarians believe it is. Transparency is a way of making this information available to them and putting the public in a position to object. When you know the name, rank, and serial numbers of your executioners, you at least have some chance of making the case for clemency.

At the December 2008 Cato policy forum on transparency entitled Just Give Us the Data!, I said (cleaned up for easy reading):

Transparency is a means to an end, and that is oversight. . . . I think libertarians believe in oversight because on balance it will diminish public demand for government. When they see where the money goes and what happens with it, they'll realize perhaps that private solutions are better than government solutions. Liberals and progressives believe that transparency will validate and strengthen federal programs — clean up the political process. . . . Whatever the case, transparency is a win-win bet. If government programs are validated and work better, that's better than just having government programs in place and failing.

There is wide agreement on the benefits of transparency, even if we don't know precisely which benefits we will get the most of. The Sunlight Foundation is no libertarian group, but Nisha Thompson of Sunlight posted last week extolling the virtues of knowing where the money goes. Transparency is a good thing, and it will be good for the president to mend his promise to practice transparency in his office.