An editorial in the New York Times the other day reminded me that it's a good time for another look at the Obama administration's record on transparency.
The editorial lauded a new policy of disclosure for the Secret Service’s logs of White House visits, naming the visitor, who set up the meeting, where it was held, and how long it lasted. The Times gushed: "[T]he administration is well on course to be the most open in modern times, with such earlier initiatives as the online Data.gov to allow citizen access to huge amounts of federal agency information."
These things are good---and the White House certainly means well---but I'm a little less enthusiastic, and I think the Times set the bar at the wrong height: A ham sandwich is more transparent than recent administrations. Candidate Obama made some firm commitments about transparency that are better for gauging his performance.
Disclosure of White House visitor logs is a small step forward, but I agree with the Times that a three to four month delay in revealing visits is too long. Much of this information is computerized at the White House and could be revealed in real time or within 24 hours. Also, visits that are not revealed for security or diplomatic reasons should be noted as such so that the quantity of such visits can be tracked over time and misuse of this secrecy ferreted out.
It's also slightly ironic to see the Times sing President Obama's transparency praises while the White House flouts a transparency commitment made to the paper back in June. For a story called "White House Changes the Terms of a Campaign Pledge About Posting Bills Online," White House spokesman Nick Shapiro told New York Times reporter Katherine Seelye, "[O]nce it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online.” It hadn't happened yet when I wrote about it in July, and it still hasn't happened, even though 22 more bills have passed into law since then.
Below the jump is an updated "Sunlight Before Signing" chart, reflecting all the bills President Obama has signed to date. Still only one (of sixty-one bills) has been posted on Whitehouse.gov for five days before signing. (That's a .016 average, baseball fans.)
The DTV Delay Act was online for five days after final passage in Congress, though not formal presentment to the president, but I've given him the benefit of the doubt to count it as a win.
I've amended the chart to highlight an interesting thing: Two-thirds of the time (41 of 61), the White House has held bills for five days or more before President Obama has signed them. The only thing keeping him from fulfilling his promise as to these bills is the simple failure to post them on Whitehouse.gov. It's hard to understand why the White House is not taking this easy step. The "Presidential Actions" page seems like a good place for it.
On measurable commitments, we have seen weakness, but, as I say, the White House certainly means well. This was confirmed for me again last week when Cass Sunstein, the new administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, invited a small group of transparency advocates including myself in for a meeting. We highlighted many angles of the transparency issue to him, mine being earmarks.
During the campaign, now-President Obama said, "[W]e will put every corporate tax break and every pork barrel project online for every American to see. You will know who asked for them and you can decide whether your representative is actually representing you."
Since then, it has been WashingtonWatch.com, not the White House, tracking and disclosing earmarks. But an OMB representative told Federal Computer Week in August that it would begin tracking and disclosing congressional earmarks from the request stage in the next budget cycle.
I passed a copy of the FCW article to Sunstein and some of the OIRA staff members who joined us at the meeting. I'm hopeful that they will follow through on this commitment. I'm looking forward to reporting tangible results to go along with the good intentions flowing from the White House!