This Week in Transparency – July 2, 2009

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

Last Friday evening’s June 26th program, CNN’s Lou Dobbs broadcasted a piece by correspondent Louise Schiavone about the Cap and Trade Energy Bill that the House of Representatives was to vote on and pass later that evening. Schiavone interviewed Jake Brewer, Sunlight’s engagement director, who said, “This is the kind of bill that’s going to affect our economy on a massive scale, our climate, our national security, and is not the kind of thing to be taken lightly. The opacity of this process is — to be perfectly honest, it’s infuriating.” Schiavone then stated erroneously that Sunlight opposed the bill. For the record, Sunlight has no position on the content of the bill itself, but advocates for the Congress to put all non-emergency legislation online for 72 hours before voting on it. The transcript can be read here, and the video is below.

Along those lines, Sunlight’s advocacy for the 72-hour rule helped generate a couple of good editorials. Heather Long, deputy editorial page editor for The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News , wrote a strong editorial in favor of the 72-hour rule. “It’s so basic it should not even have to be said: Lawmakers should know what they are voting on. In order to do that, they need time to review bills, and that takes more than a few hours for things as lengthy and complex as climate change and health care.”

The (Olympia, Wash.) Olympian editorializes about U.S. Rep. Brian Baird (Wash.) introducing House Resolution 554, which would require the House to honor the 72-hour rule with all non-emergency bills and conference reports. “If Congress is at all interested in restoring public trust and confidence in its operations, the members will pass Congressman Baird’s 72-hour rule,” the editorial says.

National Public Radio‘s Don Gonyea reports on the Obama administration backtracking on openness, centering on the White House’s refusal to make public its visitor logs. He quotes Melanie Sloan, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s director, “Once all the pretty speeches were over in the first couple of days, the record now isn’t quite so great.” Regarding the visitor logs, “Not only did the administration refuse to provide those records, we have sued them, and… they are making the same argument that the Bush administration did, that these are presidential records, even though this argument has already lost in court,” Melanie said. Gonyea quotes Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s director, noting the positive steps taken by the administration on opening government data. “What the administration is beginning to deliver is an openness when it comes to a certain level of White House deliberations and with respect to government data. Time will tell how this all plays out, but even in the first six months of the administration, we’re seeing far more openness than we’ve seen in modern history.” Listen here

The Wall Street Journal used Center for Responsive Politics data to show how the financial industry did something quite surprising…They cut spending on lobbying and campaign contributions. In this year’s first quarter, banks and other financial institutions spent $104.7 million to lobby Congress and the administration, down 8% from the same period last year. And the industry made $19.9 million in political contributions in the first three months of 2009, which is a 65% decrease from the same period in 2007 and a 13% drop from the same period in 2005, just after the last presidential election cycle, the Journal reports. Since CRP has been keeping records, the financial industry has been the top giver of political contributions and the top spender on lobbying activities, giving $2.2 billion since 1990 and spending $3.6 billion on lobbying since 1998. This year’s decline coincides with the public’s diminished image of financial institutions. Meanwhile, the health care industry is spending the most on lobbying these days, increasing its spending in the first quarter by 12% to $127.1 million.

The Boston Globe highlighted a CRP analysis that shows how consumer groups that favor health reform are being “decidedly outspent and out-lobbied by drug manufacturers, insurers, HMOs, and doctors’ associations.” In the first quarter of this year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest spender on lobbying since 1998, and the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America together spent $22.5 million to influence the debate. In contrast, Families USA, a leading advocate for health reform from the consumer’s perspective, has spent $10,000 on lobbying this year.

Writing at The Wall Street Journal‘s “Digits” blog, Marisa Taylor reported on the Personal Democracy Forum conference held earlier this week in New York. She quotes Ellen from a closing panel, “I think that we’re going to look back on 2009 as the year in which the tide shifted.” Rather than placing the burden of government transparency on non-profits to create online databases that track government spending, new government Web sites like Data.gov and Recovery.gov are creating a “remarkable shift in responsibility” wherein the government must explain itself to its citizenry, Ellen said. But Congress will be “the tougher nut to crack.”

Sunlight Labs’ launch of TransparencyCorps at the PDF conference generated good media interest. Eliza Krigman with the National Journal quoted Ellen, “Sunlight and future partners can provide micro-tasks that when aggregated, help solve research and data analysis problems when computers alone cannot properly scrutinize government information.” Columbia Journalism Review’s Clint Hendler quoted Clay Johnson, Sunlight Labs’ director, “We have a problem at Sunlight. That is that our government gives us data that our computers can’t understand, and there’s nothing we can do about it but work harder.” Marshall Kirkpatrick with ReadWriteWeb wrote, “The innovative system is a pleasure to use and is being open sourced for other organizations interested in crowdsourcing similar tasks. You can honestly do something useful and important in 5 minutes or less on this site.” And on his Joho the Blog site, David Weinberger, co-author of “The Cluetrain Manifesto,” highlighted both TransparencyCorps’ launch and OpenCongress‘ redesign.

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