Advocacy Groups Attack Transparency Reforms


In February the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform unanimously passed the Executive Branch Reform Act (H.R. 984) out of committee. The bill, sponsored by both Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ranking Member Tom Davis (R-VA), would require all political appointees and high ranking executive branch officials to file quarterly reports detailing substantive contacts they have made with persons seeking to influence policy and policy-making decisions. The legislation is intended to combat the corrupt activities of Jack Abramoff and his contacts in the Executive Branch and the secrecy of the still unknown list of energy industry executives who helped craft the President’s energy policy. Waxman has called the bill “landmark legislation” that would be the most important open government reform since the Freedom of Information Act. But even in these days where transparency is all the rage open government still comes with its own list of enemies.

The biggest opponent of this Executive Branch transparency bill are conservative religious organizations such as the Tradition Values Coalition, Family Research Council, the Free Congress Foundation, and National Right to Life. One Reverend has gone so far as to call this a “hate” bill. The bill is referred to as the “Big Brother Act” and also H.R. [1]984 by these anti-transparency organizations. They clearly don’t understand the classic Orwellian nature of their attacks. (Transparency is Big Brother; War is Peace)

These organizations insist that they are against the bill because it will stifle free speech. High-ranking government officials will stop talking to average citizens due to fear of disclosure. Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation ramps up the fear factor by stating, “Rather than make lists of every single contact with a member of the public, which would require adding additional full-time employees merely to file the necessary paperwork and additional legal staff to make sure they are in compliance, executive department officials would simply stop having meetings or returning calls and e-mails. The White House Comment line probably would have to shut down completely.”

The silliness of this rhetoric should give it away as complete fiction. In actuality, the bill only requires political appointees, high ranking military officials in the Pentagon, and top-level government officials, save for the President, the Vice President, and their chiefs of staff, to file these simple quarterly reports. Career employees would not have to file anything nor would the White House Comment line. Check out this Wikipedia page for a listing of some of the major government officials who would be required to file. The bill does not require citizens to jump through any hoops and it doesn’t place any undue burden on advocacy organizations. Contacts from religious orders are exempt from the disclosure forms, so if you’re a church you don’t have to worry. So what I ask you is, what are you all so afraid of?

I can understand why the Traditional Values Coalition might worry a little bit. The Traditional Values Coalition just happens to be connected to the reason this bill was introduced in the first place: convicted felon Jack Abramoff. The Washington Post reported on this connection a couple years ago. Abramoff, then lobbying for the online gambling site eLottery, paid anti-gambling conservative Christians to help convince other conservatives that the bill eLottery was opposed to (an anti-online gambling bill) would actually increase gambling:

“To reach the House conservatives, Abramoff turned to Sheldon, leader of the Orange County, Calif. based Traditional Values Coalition, a politically potent group that publicly opposed gambling and said it represented 43,000 churches. Abramoff had teamed up with Sheldon before on issues affecting his clients. Because of their previous success, Abramoff called Sheldon "Lucky Louie," former associates said.

Checks and e-mails obtained by The Post show that Abramoff recruited Reed to join Sheldon in the effort to pressure members of Congress. Reed had left the Christian Coalition in 1997 and started a political consulting firm in Georgia.

Abramoff asked eLottery to write a check in June 2000 to Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition (TVC). He also routed eLottery money to a Reed company, using two intermediaries, which had the effect of obscuring the source.

The eLottery money went first to Norquist's foundation, Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and then through a second group in Virginia Beach called the Faith and Family Alliance, before it reached Reed's company, Century Strategies. Norquist's group retained a share of the money as it passed through.

"I have 3 checks from elot: (1) 2 checks for $80K payable to ATR and (2) 1 check to TVC for $25K," Abramoff's assistant Susan Ralston e-mailed him on June 22, 2000. "Let me know exactly what to do next. Send to Grover? Send to Rev. Lou?"

Minutes later Abramoff responded, saying that the check for Sheldon's group should be sent directly to Sheldon, but that the checks for Norquist required special instructions: "Call Grover, tell him I am in Michigan and that I have two checks for him totaling 160 and need a check back for Faith and Family for $150K."”

The rest of the Post article (part of a Pulitzer Prize winning series) details exactly how “Lucky Louie” used his position in the Religious Right to push against the gambling bill. It even contains this nugget about another anti-transparency advocate, Paul Weyrich:

“Abramoff got another strategy e-mail the next morning from Rudy. Rudy was on DeLay's staff but wrote "we" as though he belonged to Abramoff's team. "I think we should get weyrich to get like 10 groups to sign a letter to denny and armey on gaming bill," Rudy wrote, referring to Free Congress Foundation Chairman Paul M. Weyrich and the House leaders.”

So, these guys who are knee deep in the muck with convicted felon Jack Abramoff are now advocating against transparency. I understand that. What needs to be explained is why they think executive branch officials would stop meeting with people because they have to disclose those person’s identities. Is there something going on that we, the people, shouldn’t know about? Don’t we have a right to know who is crafting policies in the executive branch? Most people probably want to know who is crafting policy in the Department of Health and Human Resources or who Monica Goodling is meeting with to craft policies in the Justice Department. It would have been great if we could have seen all of Jack Abramoff’s contacts with convicted Deputy Interior Secretary Stephen Griles or resigned Karl Rove chief of staff Susan Ralston a little earlier.

Speaker Pelosi has stated that this bill will come to the floor in some fashion. We’ll see if it comes packaged in the House’s companion lobbying and ethics reform bill.