Public Cut Out of Budget Negotiations


Well, here we are.

Details of the budget deal negotiated last week have finally been posted online, and e-government programs are likely to be deeply cut. The bill will come to a vote in the next few days, and will likely become law, since it represents an agreement reached by congressional negotiators and the White House.

What the agreement is, however, we don’t actually know.

Only this morning, three days after the deal was reached, are we seeing the full legislation that Congressional leaders and the White House have already agreed to. And we still don’t know what else was agreed to — hearings, scheduling Senate or House votes, etc. Reid, Boehner, and Obama should all be asked what terms of their agreement are that are outside this new bill.

The urgent need to fund the government (funding expires again this Friday at midnight) will again force Congress’s hand, and the bill is unlikely to get a full 72 hours online as Speaker Boehner repeatedly pledged throughout last summer. Though no one, at this point, would advocate shutting down the government in order to give a bill three days online. Especially when an agreement has already been reached, the details have been locked in, and the emergency of a shutdown is looming.

This week’s rushed and hollow congressional proceedings, as disappointing as they are, are really a natural extension of the budget negotiations train wreck we’ve been watching for years. The rank and file members of both the House and Senate have handed power to the Speaker and Majority Leader, a situation only made worse by last year’s lack of a budget, and the ideologically charged brinksmanship that is characteristic of a budget fight played out during a divided government.

A very small number of political leaders have ended up with startling control over the country’s priorities, and the public has been left piecing together what is happening well after it’s been decided. The proverbial “table” of viable options (“on the table,” “off the table”) has somehow ended up in the back room.

Glimpses of the budget negotiations have been visible in the press, but those details tend to be the obvious theater of base appeasement. Boehner denies there’s a deal; anonymous Obama staffers paint the President as both tough-as-nails and as a great convener; and Reid accuses Boehner of reneging. In other words, we get whatever they want us to hear.

If we continue to accept this manner of negotiations as standard operating procedure, this is what we’re going to get, for the 2012 budget, the debt ceiling, and probably everything else. While it’s difficult to force all of any negotiation to be public, we’ve got to be able to do better than this. Is it really the same President who once promised healthcare negotiations would be on C-SPAN that is now enforcing gag orders and non-disclosure agreements on the most far-reaching of public policies?

The same politicians that decried last year’s legislative initiatives as too sweeping, too secretive, or “rammed through” have negotiated a package that amends all of those initiatives, in private. Congress is left as an antiquated afterthought, a bygone conclusion, a formality.

The White House has been just as bad. The Federal Employees’ union had to use FOIA and then sue to try to get access to OMB’s contingency plans for a shutdown, which were treated as political documents, rather than management documents vital to the operations of a vast bureaucracy. And OMB guidance advised senior staff to repeat that this was all part of “winning the future,” — the most base example of vapid ideology winning out over merit and substance.

And now we’re left with the electronic government fund, once at $34 million, now reduced to $8 million. Is that sufficient? Will USASpending, the ITDashboard, or continue to function? The real shame here is that we don’t even know. Nobody does.

Vivek Kundra, speaking just now in a Senate hearing, said (paraphrased) that they’re in the process of reassessing priorities, and it’s unclear what will change.

So the signature sites of the Obama transparency initiative have been cut by a deal that the Obama administration agreed to, and they don’t even know how those sites will be affected. If Vivek Kundra doesn’t know, you can be sure that appropriators don’t, and that the “negotiators” striking this deal were utterly unaware of the consequences of their “agreement.”

The electronic government fund deserves a public hearing of its merits, as do all public policies.

If nobody demands better from our leaders, this will be the best we’re going to get.

Divided government should mean that we get to see the strengths of each branch played off each other, creating accountability. If a few party leaders are allowed to play Congress and make their own decisions, public accountability gets manipulated, and collaboration gets replaced by collusion.