A Good Time for Transparency

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As we at the Sunlight Foundation watch the Presidential transition begin in earnest, we’re particularly interested in President-elect Obama’s history and promise for a more open, transparent and connected government, as articulated throughout his Senate career, Presidential campaign, and now through his newly posted agenda, on change.gov. Obama’s disposition toward government reform and transparency makes it a really good time to be an open government advocate.

Throughout his four years in the U.S. Senate, Obama has compiled an impressive record on government openness and transparency. He sponsored the Federal Finance Accounability and Transparency Act, which created USAspending.gov, a database of government grants and contracts developed in the image of FedSpending.org, which OMBWatch created with the support of the Sunlight Foundation. He also sponsored or cosponsored two successful amendments to the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, requiring Senate committees to post transcripts of their public meetings, and to add a fundraising disclosure requirement for lobbists (S.Amdt 41). Other measures that Obama has proposed include a bill to set up an outside ethics commission to receive complaints from the public on alleged ethics violations (S. 2259 ), a bill (S. 2261) to shed light on earmarks, and a bill to radically open conference committee proceedings.

In February 2006, Obama testified before the Senate Rules Committee on his plan to bring good government and reduce the influence of lobbyists. From his testimony:

I hope that this committee will take into consideration these proposals as well as others that can serve as the basis for real and effective lobbying reform. Again, I hope to do this in a bipartisan manner. But I will say this: the true test of bipartisanship is not whether we pass a bill that appeals to a lowest common denominator that we can all agree on, it’s whether we pass the strongest bill with the strongest reforms possible that can truly change the way we do business in Washington. That’s what the American people will be watching for, and that’s what we owe them in the end.

Throughout the Presidential campaign, we’ve all heard a familiar refrain, and not from just Obama: “Washington is broken,” “We need to change the culture in Washington.”

Obama’s test will be in how campaign rhetoric and a “cultural” enthusiasm for reform translate into real policies.

If the reform platform articulated on change.gov is any indication, we’re in for a significant shift. Change.gov includes transparency reform in two sections, technology and ethics, both worth reading in full, and heavily excerpted below.

The technology platform includes the following proposals relevant to open government:

Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy
  • Open Up Government to its Citizens: The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history. Our nation’s progress has been stifled by a system corrupted by millions of lobbying dollars contributed to political campaigns, the revolving door between government and industry, and privileged access to inside information-all of which have led to policies that favor the few against the public interest. An Obama presidency will use cutting-edge technologies to reverse this dynamic, creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Obama and Biden believe in the American people and in their intelligence, expertise, and ability and willingness to give and to give back to make government work better. Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

…and change.gov‘s ethics platform contains the following:

The Problem

Lobbyists Write National Policies: For example, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force of oil and gas lobbyists met secretly to develop national energy policy.

Secrecy Dominates Government Actions: The Bush administration has ignored public disclosure rules and has invoked a legal tool known as the “state secrets” privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court.

Wasteful Spending is Out of Control: The current administration has abused its power by handing out contracts without competition to its politically connected friends and supporters. These abuses cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Plan

Shine the Light on Washington Lobbying
  • Centralize Ethics and Lobbying Information for Voters: Obama and Biden will create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format.
  • Require Independent Monitoring of Lobbying Laws and Ethics Rules: Obama and Biden will use the power of the presidency to fight for an independent watchdog agency to oversee the investigation of congressional ethics violations so that the public can be assured that ethics complaints will be investigated.

Shine the Light on Federal Contracts, Tax Breaks and Earmarks
  • Create a Public “Contracts and Influence” Database: As president, Obama will create a “contracts and influence” database that will disclose how much federal contractors spend on lobbying, and what contracts they are getting and how well they complete them.
  • Expose Special Interest Tax Breaks to Public Scrutiny: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will ensure that any tax breaks for corporate recipients – or tax earmarks – are also publicly available on the Internet in an easily searchable format.
  • End Abuse of No-Bid Contracts: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will end abuse of no-bid contracts by requiring that nearly all contract orders over $25,000 be competitively awarded.
  • Sunlight Before Signing: Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.
  • Shine Light on Earmarks and Pork Barrel Spending: Obama’s Transparency and Integrity in Earmarks Act will shed light on all earmarks by disclosing the name of the legislator who asked for each earmark, along with a written justification, 72 hours before they can be approved by the full Senate.

Bring Americans Back into their Government
  • Hold 21st Century Fireside Chats: Obama will bring democracy and policy directly to the people by requiring his Cabinet officials to have periodic national broadband townhall meetings to discuss issues before their agencies.
  • Make White House Communications Public: Obama will amend executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public.
  • Conduct Regulatory Agency Business in Public: Obama will require his appointees who lead the executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies to conduct the significant business of the agency in public, so that any citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet these debates.
  • Release Presidential Records: Obama and Biden will nullify the Bush attempts to make the timely release of presidential records more difficult.

Free the Executive Branch from Special Interest Influence
  • Close the Revolving Door on Former and Future Employers: No political appointees in an Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration.
  • Free Career Officials from the Influence of Politics: Obama will issue an executive order asking all new hires at the agencies to sign a form affirming that no political appointee offered them the job solely on the basis of political affiliation or contribution.
  • Reform the Political Appointee Process: FEMA Director Michael Brown was not qualified to head the agency, and the result was a disaster for the people of the Gulf Coast. But in an Obama-Biden administration, every official will have to rise to the standard of proven excellence in the agency’s mission.

It’s good for us to remember these promises as this transition begins. All of us in the transparency community should lend a hand in helping the new Administration make these provision, and others, a reality. The times demand nothing less.

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  • tawnyalawyer

    Dear Senators:
    I just heard this morning that the Senate voted down an amendment to the pending Baucus HealthCare bill which would have required the bill to be published to the American public in its final form 3 days before the Senate votes on it. I also understand that Senator Kerry ridiculed the idea, saying that no-one reads these bills before voting on them. I am appalled and disgusted and feel compelled to send this letter to you.

    It is your job to know what is in the bills you pass which have a direct effect on the American people. It is your job to participate in the legislative drafting process. It is your duty to the American people that you know exactly what is spelled out and mandated on the American people when you sign your good name to this bill, or to any bill.

    I may not agree with your position on this HealthCare bill, and that itself is fine as a part of our democratic republic process. However, what is not fine is that you believe you have any right to delegate the legislative process of drafting, reviewing and editing the bills you pass to third party organizations who have a vested interest in crafting the language of laws that are imposed upon the American people. It is a dereliction of your duty as an elected “representative” of our republic that you do not, first and foremost, read every word of any bill you vote on. It is a dereliction of our trust in you that you would be part of a body that pushes through legislation without letting the American sunlight have time to shine upon the words that become the law of our land. Shame on you and shame on our entire Congress who lets this happen.

    We sat agast at the end of last year and the beginning of this year when you passed financial industry and automotive bailouts, pork projects, and “stimulus” that that does not go into effect for years, all in the name of saving our economy, without any knowledge of what words you signed on to. Our mouths are collectively agape in horror that you have the audacity to do this again with the healthcare bill, despite the many warnings you have all had in your town-hall meetings from the American people, whether from the left or from the right. Do you really expect us to abide by the very laws you pass, not just in secrecy from the American people, but openly flaunting to the American public the fact that you have no idea of what words comprise the laws you purport put into effect? Do you expect us to abide by the contracts we sign, when you threw contract law out the window with home mortgage modification legislation? Do you expect us to have faith in our judicial system when you allowed bankruptcy law to be thrown out the window by the executive branch of government in the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies?

    We all know that the word “repeal” does not exist with your legislation. We know that you will never undo any governmental program that goes into effect. As such, your undivided, and compete attention should be given to any Healthcare program that has such a monsterous effect on the American public. Your failure to read and publish this bill to the American public before it is voted upon by you belies your obvious belief that you are not held to account by the American people. We will hold you to account to us. We have the power to take away any and all power you perceive you may hold. Should you continue down this same path of not reading your legislation and not making such legislation public, you will be held to account in your next election. I will make it a personal crusade to join with others, both left and right, to remove you from your office that you have no right to hold. Others will step up who will read the legislation they pass. Others will step up who will make all legislation open to the public prior to vote. Others will step up to do your job.

  • I hope that the section is restored soon as well. However, it does seem that the removal may have more to do with legal barriers barring coordination between a campaign and a 501(c)4 transition committee than any attempt to tamp down expectations. The “agenda” section that was removed was copied wholly from the agenda part of Obama’s campaign web site.

  • Phillip Duggan

    It’s a bit strange for that entire section to be taking down when it’s getting so much positive coverage… The entire Agenda section has been replaced with a couple paragraph blurb with absolutely no details.

    Though apparently their response is that it’s being redone so hopefully it will be back up soon and they wont be randomly cutting things without mentioning it. Because that’s hard to get away with these days.

  • Dear Ms. Miller,

    Thank you for establishing the Sunlight Foundation and for your support of an open and transparent federal government leading the way. You are right. What better time for that than now? I am anxious to participate and contribute in any way that I can to the achievement of the goals described in this blog.

    Best wishes to you and your organization.