White House Breaks Transparency Promise


In a blog post announcing the President’s signing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first piece of legislation he has signed, we are informed that the bill has been posted on the White House web site and is now open for comment… after the President signed it.

For quite some time President Obama has promised that all non-emergency legislation will be open for public comment on Whitehouse.gov for 5 days before the President signs it. I am not sure what constitutes “emergency” legislation; providing emergency appropriations in response to a disaster or attack would apply. This was supposed to be a major element to the President’s transparency efforts, even though the effect of it can be disputed (the bill has already passed and can’t be changed). A blog post from the White House on January 20th say this:

One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

It is too bad they let this transparency promise slip on the very first piece of legislation that hit the President’s desk. After a few transparency wins for the administration, it looks like they’ve hit their first fail.

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  • How is this important? First, this was an important pledge made by Obama as a candidate and then as President. I’m not sure of the merits of it necessarily, although it could provide a forum for organized opposition to a bill to be laid at the President’s desk. More important is the pressure it could put on Congress to follow a similar path, which would have a much greater effect than the President posting bills.

    In regards to the bill being “emergency,” there is no crisis that the bill is meeting that can’t wait five days. The general definition of “emergency” relates to emergency funds needed to stem a crisis or attack. Now if this bill was meant to relieve some situation that had a time limit placed on it, then perhaps it could be viewed as emergency. Instead this bill lifts a time limit, thus meaning that there is no potential loss in waiting 5 days before signing it, if that means following a pledge that was a major part of Obama’s campaign.

    For a long discussion on both the merits of the policy in dispute and the definition of “emergency” I suggest reading this thread on the Open House Project Google Group:


  • Jane

    sorry, but there is a bigger issue here: how does it even matter, realistically, that he will post legislation for five days before he signs it? do you really think an administration will change legislation based on posted comments?

    it is a lovely gesture, symbolic even, but i fail to see how it is legitimate in any concrete way…

    btw, how could equal rights NOT be emergency legislation? what comments, exactly, would you be looking for before this bill was signed?

  • I’m certainly willing to give the White House some slack on this, but only to a degree. This was supposed to be a major development in the transparency of the White House operations and could set a precedent that would hopefully put pressure on Congress to do a similar thing (which would be far more effective). If they weren’t ready to go, they shouldn’t have made such a big deal about it on their first blog post.

    Of course, the President has done some great things in terms of restoring transparency to the Executive in terms of FOIA, revolving door, and other aspects of the White House web site. In comparison to the lack of transparency over the past 8 years, this is a breath of fresh air. Still there is more work to do, and if we just start cutting slack here and there then we lose the ability to criticize. There’s nothing wrong in pointing out when the White House slips up.

    And yes, I’m fully aware of the situation regarding the IT system in the White House, the EOB, and the OEOB. I’m sure they felt like they transported back to the mid- or early-90s, which is what the system looked like the last time I saw it in 2000. It’s ugly, and I hope they figure out how to fix it, or work around it.

  • The most likely scenario to me is that their system isn’t ready for it yet. I’m also inclined to “cut him some slack”, though I think it’s interesting that so many people put it in personal terms, like “Barack’s got a lot on his plate right now”. The guy’s got a huge team.

  • joe

    I agree with Preston, cut him some slack. This is the first bill he’s signed. Also, what is the point of putting something up for comment 5 days before signing… is the idea that he might not sign it given the right public input? That is, I’m not sure what this kind of promise means instrumentally.

  • Good catch Paul, and thanks for the good work you do here, but I’m inclined to agree with Preston. Nothing’s perfect and the man has a lot on his plate right now.

    Good to keep Obama honest, but I’m not particularly alarmed that this slipped through the cracks. Still, it’s good to keep track in case it becomes a pattern.

    Otherwise, as Preston says, the transparency reforms overall have been heartening. The FOIA order alone should buy him some forgiveness if he doesn’t change everything in the first two weeks. And I assume you saw the major change in the coding of the White House website. I don’t think he’s deliberately trying to renege on his promises.

  • Frank

    The Obama team is still getting settled in, and they have a ton of stuff to coordinate while still figuring out all the systems and processes. It’s not surprising that they’d drop a few balls early on. I’m sure they’ll do better in the near future.

  • mk3872

    I have a novel idea … Let us take Obama’s “failed” transparency on the first bill he signed after being in office for 2 weeks with an antiquated IT system, making it nearly impossible to post such things on line as promised for the time being … and compare that to Bush W “transparency” of the past 8 years and see if you notice any difference, Paul.

    Hmmm … let us see … Obama supports the freedom of information act and an anti-lobbying ethics commitment from his admin. W orders his staff to not comply with congressional subpoenas and to not mingle with the DC socialites so as to not accidentally leak anything.

    Nice to know that the press was completely useless and castrated for W, but nitpicks to no end, every little thing that a Dem administation does or doe NOT do … Gimme a friggin break.

  • Give the guy a chance – he has only been in office a bit over a week. Not everything works perfectly from the start. He does seem to be headed in the right direction – which is an enormous relief, after his predecessor.

    Heck, I did not vote for the guy, and am willing to cut him this much slack. I am more interested in the results over time.

  • Surprised, all smoke & mirrors. What change has come out of Chicago politically for 100 years? Old rhetoric, different ethic body, wow what change. Everything the Dems say means the opposite anymore. You can fool all the people most of the time with a media that has a middle school crush just like Pravda in Russia. Will they media hold Obama accountable for anything/ See Obama being made fun of for weeks & weeks for going to a window to enter the whitehouse?. Bush was called stupid in hundreds of articles for months. This present moment in political & journalistic History is saddening.

  • By that measure, Obama’s transparency promise becomes moot. Every law is posted on-line before it even comes to a vote so if you’re going to allow that to stand in for Obama’s promise, every law he signs will have qualified. I don’t think that’s the impression he was giving everyone when he made the promise.

  • joe

    Its not an emergency in any sense. Sign in today, tomorrow or 2 weeks and it doesn’t make a difference. That’s just retarded.

  • Rebecca

    I personally view the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act an emergency bill. As you said, it depends on how you define emergency. for me, the supreme court’s ruling here was unethical on so many levels. Companies forces employees to sign”loyalty” pledges and agreements not to disclose their rate of pay to other employees making it impossible to know if you are being fairly or not. Its a travesty and detrimental to the worker. As a woman, I already have a mountain of discriminatory realities that I must deal with on the job market and I do not need more laws that bode poorly for the worker. The passing of this bill was an emergency the moment the Supreme Court made their 180 day decision! As for Obama and whether he will continue to be transparent, that waits to be seen.

    You are quite right about one thing, we need to know how this administration defines emergency. This is a vital point. but I am willing to wait and see what the current on his actions will be.

    Thanks for the think,

  • Not sure how that matters. Obama made a pledge, and campaigned on it, to post all non-emergency legislation online for 5 days open to public comment. Obama has no control over the previous bill and did not promise to not post bills that were introduced in the 110th Congress online, he instead promised to post all non-emergency legislation that comes to his desk for 5 days before he signs it.

    There isn’t really a way to wiggle out of this, except to say that they (doh!) forgot, or that their system wasn’t ready yet to go forward with the pledge. If the latter is the case, then they shouldn’t have made such a big deal about it in their very first blog post.

  • Clay brought up a good point on Twitter – was this legislation posted online last session (with no significant changes since)?