This Week in Transparency – August 7, 2009

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Here are some of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies over the past week:

Alan Fram with the Associated Press wrote about how the health insurance industry is fighting to prevent the Congress from passing a health care overhaul that includes a government-run plan to compete with private insurers. Fram cites data from the Center for Responsive Politics to show how health insurers have made $41 million in campaign contributions to current congressional lawmakers since 1989, “with more than half going to lawmakers on the five House and Senate panels writing this year’s health bills.” Since the beginning of 2008, insurers have spent $145 million on lobbying.

The New York Times‘ Jack Rosenthal, in writing the paper’s “On Language” column, mentioned how Andrew Raseij, Sunlight’s senior technology advisor and co-director of Personal Democracy Forum, is pushing for a federal law that redefines “public” to mean searchable and readable online. U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.) is drafting just such legislation. Rosenthal also noted how the Senate does not disclose campaign-contribution information to the Federal Election Commission in an electronic form. “That means it must be digitized by the commission, by which time the next election may well have come and gone. Transparent? Yes, but also emasculated,” Rosenthal wrote.

Federal Computer Week’s Ben Bain wrote about how the Obama administration is asking federal agencies to gear their spending plans for science and technology in fiscal 2011 toward projects designed to drive economic growth, create energy independence, improve health, and bolster security, according to recently issued general guidance. Peter Orszag, Obama’s OMB director, outlined the new emphasis in an August 4th memo (PDF). Craig Jennings, a senior federal fiscal policy analyst with OMB Watch, said the memo is an indication that science and technology will be high priorities for the administration.

Colin Barr at Fortune magazine wrote about how skeptics are questioning a claim made by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” Geithner said taxpayers have made a small profit, $6 billion, on their investments in banks via the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Barr quotes Marcus Peacock, Pew’s project director of Subsidyscope saying the government isn’t doing enough to document what’s happening with the money. Peacock said government data collection projects are often “pockmarked” with omissions and outright errors, a pattern that hasn’t been broken with the financial bailouts. Despite the administration’s public embrace of transparency, it has failed to provide full and understandable disclosure of its actions in TARP, Peacock said.

The Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer editorialized about the Blue Dog Coalition’s effect on the health care debate in Congress, using Dan Eggen’s article in last Friday’s edition of The Washington Post. The editorial notes Eggen citing Party Time’s compilation of records of political fundraisers since 2008. “America has been waiting for more than 60 years for universal health care. (The) Blue Dogs wouldn’t mind if it took another 60 years to give Americans what every other advanced nation in the world now has,” the editorial says. “This is yet another example of how our current system of legalized bribery, otherwise known as campaign contributions, distorts the democratic process.”

Beth Sussman, writing at the National Journal’s “Under the Influence” blog, OpenCongress‘ redesign. She quotes OpenCongress’ David Moore, “You never hear somebody at a bar talking about clause 56 in H.R. 3200.” So OpenCongress “enables peer-to-peer communication about the best information on bills in Congress.” Sussman reports how the site now has an email form, so you can send an email to contact lawmakers about legislation, a tracking tool so you can compare how you would vote on a piece of legislation with how your representative has voted and a personalized list of legislation you may support or oppose. “There was a real opportunity to bring together this confusing government data with helpful data and what people were saying about it,” David said. The site aims to “make all the information about Congress more accessible to people who aren’t necessarily Congress-buffs.”

USA Today wrote about documents made public by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) that showed how Amtrak wanted to fire its independent Inspector General, who was effectively forced to resign several weeks ago. The IG and the rail carrier had feuded since it was revealed in 2006 that Amtrak had spent more than $100 million in mismanaged fees to private lawyers over a five year period, allegedly violating Amtrak billing rules.

The Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star editorialized about the need for congressional lawmakers to read legislation they are voting on. They mentioned how Sunlight is one of a number of organizations advocating that Congress put all legislation online 72 hours before they conduct a vote. The editorial called on Nebraska’s congressional delegation to support such a proposal.

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