This Week in Transparency – July 24, 2009
Here are some of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies over the past week:
CQ Weekly‘s Maura Reynolds wrote about the Obama administration’s successes and failures in achieving its transparency goals six months into the term. Reynolds quoted Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s director, about how many of their transparency initiatives are still in development and how the kinks are being worked out. “A default position that government data will be accessible to the public in machine-readable format is a huge step forward,” Ellen said. “Is it moving as fast as I’d like? Of course not. But I can be patient while this unfolds.” Ellen also commented on some of the administration’s initiatives, such as “town hall” meetings, that have been tightly controlled. “There is real transparency, and then there is transparency theater,” she said. “I can distinguish between the two.” Reynolds wrote that the more people expect the Internet to deliver the information they want, the more kinds of information they will expect to access that way. “It’s kind of a genie out of the bottle,” Ellen said. “The Internet has raised expectations. I fundamentally believe that the way technology pushes information out to the edges will have a powerful effect on the power structure.” Reynolds reports that open government advocates praise two federal Web sites, USAspending.gov, a site that tracks all federal spending and was set up as a result of a bill co-sponsored by then-Sen. Obama, and Data.gov, the site the new administration designed as a “one-stop shop for number crunchers that consolidates statistics across federal agencies in standard, machine-readable formats.” The article quotes Gary Bass, director of OMB Watch, saying the sites could be vehicles for connecting government performance to spending. “From the point of view of the average user, there has been nothing like this before. That is truly a credit to this administration.” Reynolds notes that it was OMB Watch’s FedSpending.org that served as the technical platform for USAspending.gov.
Despite the existence of rules requiring congressional lawmakers to disclose earmarks they request, rules do not exist requiring them to disclose items classified as “program support.” The Washington Post‘s Carol Leonnig illustrates this problem with a report on how $160 million intended to help Mexico’s police buy U.S.-made first-responder radios was tucked into the voluminous congressional plan for U.S. military spending next year. Leonnig quotes Bill Allison, Sunlight’s senior fellow, “It kind of makes a mockery of the disclosure requirements we have. They will disclose the little things, the $1 million projects, but when you have the big-ticket items, you don’t have members willing to take responsibility for those.”
Stephanie Condon, writing at CBS News‘ “Political Hotsheet” column, cited a report from Taxpayers for Common Sense that found that lawmakers serving on the the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense included 1,080 earmarks worth $2.7 billion dollars in the fiscal-year 2010 defense appropriations bill they approved last week. The lawmakers specifically requested more than $1.6 billion in earmarks for their campaign contributors, entities who had donated nearly $1 million to the committee members.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and Taxpayers for Common Sense achieved a major victory when the Senate voted to halt production of the Air Force’s top fighter jet, the F-22 Raptor, as reported by The Boston Globe. POGO called it a “landmark vote” that “marks the end of business as usual, and the beginning of real reform, in Washington.” And Taxpayers termed it a “giant step for fiscal sanity (that) affirms the government’s ability to stop unneeded weapons programs even when they are firmly entrenched in the American industrial and congressional base.”
Tom Hamburger and Peter Nicholas at The Los Angeles Times reported on Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general overseeing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, asked a simple question: What had the nation’s banks done with all their bailout money? And the Treasury Department answered that they don’t know. The Times reporters quoted Ellen crediting the Obama administration for making more government data public. She cited Data.gov as an example of a genuine attempt to put a wealth of government information on the Internet. But at the same time, Ellen said: “We don’t see any radical changes from what we’ve seen in the past.” The Chicago Tribune‘s “The Swamp” blog picked up the story, as did a number of other outlets across the country.
National Journal‘s Eliza Krigman reported on Cato’s Jim Harper launching a contest at WashingtonWatch.com. The contest, supported by Sunlight, is meant to encourage citizens to contribute online to an earmark database to track how congressional lawmakers steer federal funds to special interests and projects in their districts. Krigman notes that the project is similar to Sunlight’s Transparency Corps. Amanda Carpenter at The Washington Times, Ryan Singel at Wired‘s “Epicenter” blog and Nate Anderson at Ars Technica wrote about WashingtonWatch.com’s earmark contest as well.
In their headlines for Monday, Democracy Now reported on a bipartisan group of centrist and conservative senators who called on Democratic and Republican leaders to put off a vote on health care reform legislation for 70 days. In the report they cite info from Paul Blumenthal‘s blog post on how each of these senators has raised at least $1 million from the health and insurance sectors combined over the course of their respective careers.
National Public Radio‘s Andrea Seabrook and Peter Overby, in a report the network broadcast on Wednesday afternoon’s edition of “All Things Considered,” asked the question, “Who has access to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the chair of the Senate Finance Committee?” They highlight and link to the graphic produced by Paul and Kerry Mitchell, Sunlight’s creative director, that traces health care lobbyists’ ties to Baucus and other senators on the Finance Committee. They also interviewed Paul who said, “In Washington, relationships are part of the huge game of influence. If you don’t have a relationship with someone on the Hill, then you aren’t going to have the kind of access that you need for your client.” And so, Paul said, these lobbyists — and their clients — have a unique brand of access to one man at the center of the health-care debate.
Anne Mulkern of Greenwire (subscription required) reported on an analysis conducted by the Center for Responsive Politics of a portion of lobbying disclosures for the second quarter of 2009 by energy companies, which show that electric utilities increased their expenditures, nearly catching up with oil and gas. While Congress debated and voted on the Cap and Trade Energy Conservation Bill, electric utilities spent $12 million, while oil and gas spent $13.9 million, attempting to influence the outcome. The New York Times republished Mulkern’s piece.
The the Financial Times and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi have picked up LittleSis.org‘s profiling of Bob Hormats, Obama’s pick to be under secretary of state for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs. Hormats, as vice chair of Goldman Sachs (International), has dubious ties to the genocidal regime in Sudan through a Chinese oil company.
Quinn Norton at the Irish Times highlights Transparency Corps in an article about how crowdsourcing can be an effective means of getting labor-intensive work done online. Norton quotes Clay extensively, “Right now we’re just trying to keep up with the users, which is a nice problem to have.” Clay said that next up will be a project from LittleSis.org.