Transparency Reforms on List of President’s Priorities


Copies of the SOTU speech are now circulating and there are several things in it that Sunlight is extremely happy about.

First, the President will call for the establishment of a single Congress-wide database so that all of us can track earmarks. A state-of-the-art, user-friendly online database, one that allows users to search, sort, and download machine-readable data, will spur more citizen interest and involvement  — and accountability — in federal budgetary questions.

Sunlight has long advocated transparency to ensure that earmarks reflect the public interest. There is a long history of members abusing earmarks, requesting funding to build bridges to nowhere and to reward political allies, family members and even for personal enrichment. These abuses were most prevalent when there was little transparency in the process. Until 2007, members did not disclose which earmarks they requested, recipients were not named and individual earmarks were scattered throughout a dozen or more congressional committee documents that totaled hundreds of pages.

While the last two Congresses have improved earmark disclosure, it’s still impossible for a citizen to find, in a single place, all the relevant information about the projects their elected lawmakers request before votes are taken on them. What the President is requesting — a centralized database with information posted before final decisions are made — is a much-needed change.

Second, the President is calling for more complete disclosure by lobbyists when  they are lobbying the White House or Congress. Under his plan, each contact would be reported, presumably with enough specificity to be meaningful.  Sunlight believes strongly that such disclosures should be made electronically, published promptly and maintained online in a downloadable, searchable, sortable format. We believe that disclosure should include all legislation and regulations discussed and all requests for specific services or government funding. Legislative contacts should be reported within 24 hours of any meeting. In addition, the requirement that contributions by registered lobbyists be reported semiannually should be amended to require contributions be reported within 24 hours of being made.

And third, the President calls for fixes to the campaign finance system in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. We believe that this decision certainly calls for an immediate update to the entire campaign finance disclosure law regime — covering everything from who has to disclose, what is required to be disclosed, how often, and in what form – whether the spending comes directly from corporations’ or unions’ treasuries, from lobbyists, political parties or the candidates themselves. Clearly, now more than ever, our entire system of public disclosure of election-related contributions and expenditures needs to be upgraded to keep pace with the influences it is designed to track. And with the technical capacity we now have in this 24/7 world, this means that disclosures must be filed online, in real time.

We applaud the President for making these new initiatives and stand ready to consult with Congress and the administration to find the best technical means to accomplish these goals.

Excerpts from the Speech below:

Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time for something new. Let’s try common sense. Let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let’s meet our responsibility to the people who sent us here.

To do that, we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve.

That’s what I came to Washington to do. That’s why – for the first time in history – my administration posts our White House visitors online. And that’s why we’ve excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs or seats on federal boards and commissions.

But we cannot stop there. It’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my Administration or Congress. And it’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign companies – to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.

I’m also calling on Congress to continue down the path of earmark reform. You have trimmed some of this spending and embraced some meaningful change. But restoring the public trust demands more. For example, some members of Congress post some earmark requests online. Tonight, I’m calling on Congress to publish all earmark requests on a single Web site before there’s a vote so that the American people can see how their money is being spent.