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Transparency In The SOTU

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President Obama's mentioned several of Sunlight's core issues in his State of the Union Address issues last night. A closer look at what he said, and what he said last year, helps to sort out the rhetoric from the reality.

Earmarks

Here's President Obama, last night:

And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it... A 21st century government that’s open and competent.

This is a new development, and a departure from his request last year, in January of 2010:

I'm also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform. Applause.) Democrats and Republicans. (Applause.) Democrats and Republicans. You've trimmed some of this spending, you've embraced some meaningful change. But restoring the public trust demands more. For example, some members of Congress post some earmark requests online. (Applause.) Tonight, I'm calling on Congress to publish all earmark requests on a single Web site before there's a vote, so that the American people can see how their money is being spent. (Applause.)

In 2010, Obama called for earmark transparency. In 2011, he issues an outright veto threat. What has changed?

After Obama's initial call for an earmarks database, lawmakers (and Sunlight) took his call seriously, crafting the Earmark Transparency Act in both the House and the Senate. They had broad bipartisan support, and the Senate bill even passed out of committee. The White House was silent, and uninvolved.

Unfortunately, a veto threat is an unlikely fix to our earmark issues. It's unclear how long it'll last, or whether it's a threat that Congress will accept. Even if they do, no one expects earmarks to end, but instead to continue under a different procedure -- phonemarking, lettermarking, and who knows what else. (We're calling those "nearmarks").  Members of Congress can still direct funds to pet projects; they'll just be harder to track, and further from the public eye.

The only ultimately reliable authority to appeal to on spending is public scrutiny. That's what Obama called for last year. Too bad he didn't follow through. It's difficult not to interpret the earmark veto threat with skepticism, as part of an escalating anti-washington political arms race, rather than a well-considered solution to a real problem.

Campaign Finance Disclosure

After the Citizens United decision, President Obama became a fierce ally for legislation to create disclosure in its wake. He made countless speeches and radio addresses, and the White House was heavily involved in trying to get the effort passed. Senate Republicans ultimately blocked the effort, even after an initiative to introduce a disclosure-only bill.

Given that history, it's surprising that this issue didn't show up at all in last night's speech. The cynical view is that Democrats are planning ways to benefit from campaign finance deregulation; perhaps Republican control of the House makes a disclosure bill less likely to pass. In any case, it's a huge reversal for the reform issue perhaps closest to Obama's heart to get a goose egg in the SOTU.

2011:

nothing

2010:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests –- including foreign corporations –- to spend without limit in our elections. (Applause.) I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. (Applause.) They should be decided by the American people. And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.

Lobbying

Last night's speech saw one particular call for lobbying reform:

Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online.

That sounds like a good idea, but unfortuntely it's expressed in State of the Union shorthand, and glosses over a pile of complexity. There are two sets of policies that Obama could be referring to when he says that they've "already done" lobbying disclosure.

First is the visitor logs, which the White House released as a result of a CREW lawsuit. They allow anyone to see records of most visitors to the White House posted online four months after the visits occur. These are meaningful disclosures, and allowed Sunlight's Paul Blumenthal to reconstruct the lobbying and dealmaking that went into the healthcare bill.

But that doesn't mean that they're an effective lobbying disclosure system. The design of the WAVES system is an artifact of how security officers track who enters and leaves the White House system -- a far cry from the lobbying disclosure so necessary to holding officials accountable.

Secondly, Obama could be referring to the lobbying disclosures the Executive Branch is voluntarily making around focused issues. There are such policies now applied to TARP, the stimulus, and now to the Dodd-Frank bill. Again, these are meaningful policies, worthy of broad praise, and further analysis. But they're insufficient for the White House to say they're "already done." These policies are easy to evade, and often rely on the outdated and ineffective definitions from the Lobbyist Disclosure Act.

The real fix is the sort of fundamental reform to our lobbying disclosure system that we've described in our bill on PublicMarkup, and posted for public review and commentary.

Having the President push for such a measure would improve its prognosis significantly. Unfortunately, it's unclear whether the line in last night's speech was the opening salvo in a new lobbying reform initiative, or a temporary jab at the legislature intended to garner praise for existing White House initiatives.

If "we do big things" then real-time, online lobbying disclosure should be one of them.

Other

Obama also mentioned the following line:

Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history.

This is rather cryptic. It's possible that this refers to a proposal to create a digital receipt for after paying your taxes, which has been floating around in different versions for several years. But that's a guess.

The USASpending.gov site already provides details on how the government spends money on grants and contracts, although the data they're using is largely unreliable.  If the government is going to add to this accounting, they should fix those problems first.

Overall

Compared to last year's speech, 2011's ideas were derivative and rhetorical.  Since there is no dedicated staffer at the White House pursuing ethics and transparency, it looks like the Obama's leadership on this issue is slipping.

As the White House staff shakeup continues, and in the absence of the not-to-be-replaced Ethics Czar, we're left wondering whether we've already seen the best of the transparency of the Obama Administration.