This Week In Transparency – June 19, 2009


Here are a few of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and grantees from this week:

In Sunday’s print edition, The New York Times editorialized about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordering electronic disclosure of lawmakers’ expense spending. They also encouraged the Senate to open up as well. Candidates for the Senate are the only federal candidates who fail to make their campaign finances available online in a timely fashion. “A measure to finally prod the Senate into modern times with electronic campaign filing awaits action, providing Republican obstruction can be defused. That’s not enough. It should be followed up by the Senate also putting expenses on line.” Getting the Senate to pass timely online disclosure is a Sunlight priority.

Also in its Sunday edition, The Virginia-Pilot editorialized about Congress opening up its data online.  “Until recently, members of Congress have expended little effort to make their reports viewable online. But recent stories by The (Wall Street) Journal, as well as lobbying by government watchdog groups, apparently spurred lawmakers into action.” The editorial notes Sunlight pointed out that (Pelosi’s) plan calls for the reports to be posted in a “portable document format,” or PDF, file. However, a searchable database would be much more user-friendly, allowing taxpayers to pull up and compare multiple reports.

NextGov‘s Aliya Sternstein reports on Sunlight obtaining and posting a version of the RFP for the redesign. Sternstein quotes Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs director, “We’re not in government contracting, but we’re in transparency … and it’s crazy that the only place you can get this RFP” on Sunlight’s Web site. “The reason that we’re doing this is so we can inject ourselves into the process and expose it to the public,” Clay said. “We’ll be blogging about the whole thing. This Web site is supposed to serve the people, so let the people build it to their specifications.”

On Tuesday, and their partner the California First Amendment Coalition achieved a huge victory when the State of California agreed to give the public access to the state government database of how state lawmakers vote. In December, the two groups filed a lawsuit seeking access to legislative votes. In response, the state has set up a database of Senate and Assembly bills and votes that it updates daily. MAPLight is working to combine data on all contributions California state legislators receive with the new database of how each politician votes. “It will combine data on all money given to members of the California state legislature with the newly available database of how each politician votes, revealing patterns of money and influence never before possible,” Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s executive director, blogged about the victory for open government earlier in the week. The Berkeley, Calif., -based MAPLight constructed a similar database on Congress, which The New York Times’ Freakonomics blog highlighted on Tuesday.

Data and analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics continues to fuel important media stories. For instance, the Associated Press reported how the oil and gas industry has dramatically increased its lobbying spending in an effort to thwart new taxes and slow efforts to wean the nation away from fossil fuels. In the first three months of the year, the industry spent $44.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies, which puts it on pace to shatter last year’s record total of $129 million. National Journal’s Hotline on Call highlighted a CRP study that found 19 of President Obama’s ambassador nominees bundled $3.4 million in contributions to his presidential campaign and another $1.4 million to pay for his inauguration.

On his Instapundit blog, Glenn Reynolds highlights a blog post written by Paul Blumenthal, Sunlight’s senior writer, about how the House Ethics Committee is investigating a possible qui pro quo between Rep. Charles Rangel (N.Y.) and an oil industry executive.

The Washington Post reported on how the U.S. Treasury Department has told the special inspector general charged with overseeing the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector that the agency controls his office, “a claim that could threaten its independence.” The Post quotes Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, as saying that the Obama White House is acting like the administrations that proceeded it, trying to protect their privilege as much as possible. “I think there’s been a perception that this had been a uniquely Bush-Cheney phenomenon, and I think you’re seeing it [in this administration] too.”

And in another disappointing story, the Politico reports that the Obama administration is adhering, “at least for now,” to the Bush administration policy of keeping White House visitor logs secret. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed suit Tuesday after the Secret Service refused their request for information on visits by coal industry executives. Paul blogged about this “disheartening” development on Tuesday.

Kevin Freking at the Associate Press reported on U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) canceling a fundraiser in her honor after an invitation to potential guests came across to some as more audacious than amusing. The invitation for the fundraiser, scheduled for Wednesday, included a play on words about the California Democrat’s committee assignments. Freking quoted Nancy Watzman, director of Sunlight’s Party Time project, as saying it’s common for political fundraisers to list lawmakers’ committee assignments, but “others don’t say it in so quite a blatant way. She was just highlighting what everyone knows. If you have business before a committee, there’s an opportunity to meet-and-greet this politician in a personal way,” Nancy said.

In a post about “incentive prizes” being used to spur public-private partnerships on the White House’s “The Briefing” blog, Thomas Kalil, the associate director of Science and Technology Policy for the Obama administration, mentioned and linked to Sunlight Lab’s Apps for America 2 contest as a good example.

At the Politico, Victoria McGrane wrote about U.S. Reps. Brian Baird (Wash.) and John Culberson (Texas) introducing a resolution that would require the House to post online all non-emergency legislation at least 72 hours before debate begins. She notes how Sunlight has counted more than a dozen House bills that failed the 72-hour test. Convincing Congress to honor a 72-hour rule is a priority of Sunlight. Such a rule would not only allow lawmakers the time to actually read the bills they are voting on, it would also give the press and citizens time to add their voice to the process.