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A Sunshine Week Call for Greater Transparency

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As part of Sunshine week, I had the opportunity to testify at a  House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing to share a few of Sunlight's ideas about making the executive branch more transparent. Video and text of my opening statement are below. It almost goes without saying that we're very interested in the transparency bills the Oversight Committee will be marking up this Wednesday.

 

Text of Opening Statement

Chairman Issa, Ranking Member Cummings, and distinguished members of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, thank you for the honor and privilege of speaking here today.

At the heart of transparency is the idea that the public has the right to know what government is doing. In our modern times, this means online, in real time, and in computer-friendly formats.

While the Obama Administration has made significant rhetorical strides towards a 21st century vision of transparency, and launched several innovative transparency initiatives, government must do more to address the fundamental challenge of being transparent.

It is my intention today to encourage this Committee to continue its good works, to adopt the Administration’s best initiatives, and to help the administration meet its pledge to be the most transparent one ever.

Let’s start with federal spending transparency. A Sunlight Foundation analysis, called ClearSpending, found $1.55 trillion in misreported federal grant spending. The numbers just don’t line up. This is the third year in a row we’ve found a problem of this magnitude.

We believe the government should publicly track each federal dollar from the moment spending is proposed in the budget until it reaches its final destination. The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board showed us the way.

How? By using unique identifiers to track who is spending, how much they’re spending, and who gets the money. By demonstrating the necessity of an independent commission whose only job is fiscal transparency. And by releasing more information that allows data to be cross-checked. The DATA Act will make all this happen, government-wide, and should be speedily enacted into law.

What the DATA Act does for federal spending transparency, the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act does for oversight of agency policymaking. Reports to Congress are a means to find out what agencies are actually doing. These reports should all be online in one central place.

We also believe that advisory committees shouldn’t be a stealthy way for special interests to influence the political process, and that sunlight should be shined on donors to presidential libraries who are snuggling up to future ex- presidents. It’s time for Congress to pass the Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments and the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act.

There are several administration initiatives that the Committee should embrace and enhance.

The White House’s landmark Open Government Directive, which requires agencies to create and update open government plans, reduce FOIA backlogs, and release new datasets, has yielded mixed results. Some agencies are still trying to wait out this transparency fad. The OGD contains good ideas, and to make sure they’re fully implemented, they should be codified.

New federal transparency websites, such as Data.gov, USASpending.gov, and the IT Spending Dashboard, are already changing government. They should be moved out from under the E-Gov Fund, which is intended for start-ups, and given a statutory basis and their own funding.

For FOIA, we’ve seen smart experiments like FOIA Online, proactive disclosure, and a presumption in favor of disclosure. These ideas should all be codified, along with a strengthening of the Federal FOIA Ombudsman and the incorporation of the Public Online Information Act, which ensures publicly available materials are online. We applaud Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Cumming’s newly released draft FOIA legislation.

The executive branch needs some encouragement from Congress on the following three issues. The rules covering the White House visitor logs should be strengthened, codified, and stripped of their loopholes. All of the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel Opinions should be online, with only a few exceptions, not the two-fifths we found missing. And the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB isn’t living up to its obligation to fully disclose when and how it’s being lobbied on major rulemakings. This has gone on long enough.

More work is needed on money in politics. The Lobbying Disclosure Enhancement Act, for example, would make sure that our transparency regimes cover people who act like lobbyists, but don’t meet the current law’s arbitrary definition.

Finally, the Congressional Research Service regularly distributes reports on matters of importance to national policymaking to the thousands of staffers on Capitol Hill, but these reports aren’t systematically available to the public. They should be. We ask that the Committee publish on its website all reports relevant to its jurisdiction.

Transparency doesn’t just keep our political system working properly, it gives people reason to have faith that our political system can work for all of us.

I know the Committee understands this, and I thank you for the opportunity to speak here today.