Sunlight Agenda 2016
- Money in Politics: The President needs to commit to a legislative agenda for money-in-politics transparency. 2012 was the most expensive election ever, and, more importantly, the most secretive in recent history, as gutted campaign finance laws have allowed unlimited, often secret money to pour into our elections. At the top of the list is the DISCLOSE Act, our best chance to know whose money is affecting our politics. The President could also use executive orders to require contractors to disclose their political spending, and create a policy to require disclosure for top administration officials’ participation in big dollar fundraising. Sunlight will be pushing for leadership from the top, legislative reform, and any other avenues we can to help create a government that deserves our trust.
- Lobbying Disclosure: The President needs to create real time, online disclosure for lobbying. Real lobbying disclosure needs to be as strong as the influence it seeks to affect, and for us that means real-time reporting, and online disclosure. Sunlight will continue to advocate for the Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act, and push the White House to do what they can without Congress. The relatively strong, self-imposed lobbying disclosure that was created for the TARP, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank implementation should be applied across the executive, and reporting should be standardized and electronic, to empower reuse and analysis. The White House should also fix the neglected OIRA lobbying disclosure policy.
- Beyond Visitor Logs: The White House should move beyond the visitor logs disclosure policy, to a reliable lobbying disclosure policy for the White House and its officials. The visitor logs were never intended to become an accountability mechanism, and while they’ve been used to create important narratives about power in Washington, there are significant shortfalls in how they’re enforced that show that they’re ultimately insufficient for the task the current administration has assigned them.
- Publicly Manage Data: All major data sets and information systems should be publicly listed by central authority in the White House, or by every agency. The biggest shortfall with federal data transparency policy is that it’s not comprehensive, and agencies often ignore it, since decisions about what information gets published happen in private. If agencies take responsibility for their information and data, then we’ll see more data, they’ll make better decisions in the public interest. If they don’t, those decisions will be reviewable. Public lists of public information will continue to be a top priority for Sunlight during the next administration.
- Other Agencies and Money in Politics: Other agencies and independent agencies can also help safeguard some accountability for how our elections are financed. The FCC, as they build to comprehensive disclosure of public files (which should not have been delayed), should ensure that they’re creating the most robust, useful disclosure of ad-buy information, including all markets, structured data, and FEC identifiers. The FCC should also create an online database of political ads, so that efforts like Sunlight’s Ad Hawk have a canonical list to refer to. The IRS should investigate and enforce their C4 rules, the FEC needs fundamental reform, and the SEC should pursue corporate reforms that can mitigate the worst corporate political abuses.
- Put Spending Communications from Congress Online: Executive Order 13457 already exists, and the next administration should enforce it. If Members of Congress are going to (often hypocritically) ask for money for their district directly from agencies, then agencies should disclose those requests online, as that order already requires. Sunlight opposes illicit earmark requests, and the current “ban” has made the problem worse.
- Spending Transparency: Our federal spending, tax expenditures, budget, and contracting systems all need attention. Federal grants reporting suffers from serious data quality issues, which implementation of the DATA Act will help to address. Tax expenditures, despite being a quarter of federal spending, are only estimated, not measured. Federal contracts are treated as proprietary information. The budget process remains inscrutable to all but the most devoted experts.
- Corporate Identifiers: Despite heroic work from public interest advocates, corporate activity is needlessly difficult to track because the government relies on proprietary, flawed systems to track corporate entities. Sunlight will continue to push for a reliable, open system that allows anyone to uniquely identify legal entities and track their activities. We will also continue to support bills like the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, to create more corporate accountability.
- FOIA: The administration should work to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. The EPA’s new online submission and tracking system should be supported and more widely adopted, the DOJ’s regressive FOIA regulations should be replaced with regulations that strengthen public access, and the presumption in favor of disclosure should be coupled with actions and legal postures that support claims of openness.
- Data Policy: The administration should keep, strengthen, and seek to codify the open data policies that the Obama administration has implemented, including the Open Government Directive and the Digital Government Strategy. Public information should be posted online, data should be available in bulk and in structured formats, and systems that power open data should be supported and expanded. The White House has often led in recent years on opening data, and that leadership role should grow during the next administration.
- Build a Healthy Public Politics: The last administration and Congress together created some extremely secretive, undemocratic processes to deal with some of our most important policy fights. The government shutdown fights, debt limit negotiations, and supercommittee all saw our political leaders turn away from the public that elected them, and toward secret negotiations. While secrecy has its place in some negotiations, our elected representatives should feel a responsibility to carry out their political responsibilities in public, and not just in derivative, pre-prepared ways. Sunlight will continue to push for an adult political posture from our leaders that treats public dialog as a goal rather than a barrier. The gamesmanship that comes from divided government doesn’t need to lead away from transparency.
- Open Government Partnership: The Open Government Partnership has opened a vital space for important new commitments from heads of state around the world, including in the USA, most notably with the US Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative commitment. The next administration should continue to support the OGP, especially since the USA was a co-founder, and keep working on improving the National Action Plan for Open Government and implementing oustanding commitments.
- National Security: The next administration needs to treat national security transparency policies as essential to the rule of law. America’s military role in the world requires higher standards for democratic accountability in the use of force. We should be the standard bearers for accountability and transparency. Overly aggressive whistleblower prosecution, secret legal justifications, and permanent secrecy for government killings of citizens all severely undermine democratic accountability, and weaken our democracy.
We have organized our priorities for the next administration below, to share where our work on executive branch issues will be focused. From money in politics to open data, spending, and freedom of information, we’ll be working to open up the executive branch.
Legislative Branch Agenda for the 114th Congress
The Sunlight Foundation’s legislative branch agenda for the 114th Congress is sweeping and comprehensive, but if Congress is committed to transparency, many of Sunlight’s recommendations can be quickly adopted. Sunlight’s legislative recommendations to improve transparency fall into three broad areas: Lobbying, Money in Politics, and Government Data.
Congress should adopt comprehensive lobbying reform to require real time online disclosure of lobbyists’ activities. The Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act would ensure that those who are paid to lobby register as lobbyists and would create more transparency around lobbyists’ interactions with Members of Congress.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act should also be amended to require registration and reporting by “political intelligence” firms that specialize in gathering nonpublic information from Hill sources in order to enrich investors and manipulate stock markets.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) should be amended so that detailed information about foreign lobbying is available online, in real time, in a searchable, sortable, downloadable database.
Money in Politics
Greater transparency of money in politics is vital to restore accountability and trust in our democratic institutions. Congress should eliminate dark money’s influence on elections by passing a version of the DISCLOSE Act. Legislation requiring disclosure of corporate political expenditures by publicly held companies would also shine a light on much of the dark money infecting our elections.
The 2012 election demonstrated that presidential candidates can not be counted on to voluntarily disclose information about who is giving to their campaigns. Legislation requiring disclosure of presidential bundlers, as well as candidates’ tax returns would provide voters with insight into potential conflicts of interests and executive branch influencers.
The Senate should, at long last, pass legislation requiring senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports.
A number of previously introduced pieces of legislation would dramatically increase openness of government data. Congress should pass the Public Online Information Act (POIA), to require Executive Branch agencies to publish all publicly available information on the Internet in a timely fashion and in user-friendly formats.
The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act (ACMRA) would make agency reports more accessible to the public. Legislation to ensure the public has access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports would also ensure valuable, objective reports are publicly available.
Congress runs on rules. With the changeover from the 113th to 114th Congress, the House of Representatives adopted new regulations that innervate every aspect of legislative life. The last time it did this, in 2010, the House set the stage for greater openness and transparency in the lower chamber. At that time, Sunlight issued a series of recommendations, some of which were adopted. The House of Representatives made significant progress toward ensuring the people’s house belongs to the people, from the new transparency portal docs.house.gov to expanded video coverage of House proceedings to retaining the Office of Congressional Ethics.
For the 114th Congress, we’ve issuing and updated our recommendations, each of which would mark a significant step towards increased. You can view the full set of proposals here.
The United States Senate is a creature of its rules. Through its standing rules, laws and resolutions, precedents, and the consent of its measures, the upper chamber carefully controls how legislation can be promulgated and debate can take place.
Unlike the House of Representatives, which must vote on its rules every Congress, the Senate rarely reconsiders its standing rules in their entirety. An opportunity may arise, however, with the current debate over changing how the filibuster works. You can view Sunlight’s full set of recommendations for updating the Senate’s rules here.
The Sunlight Foundation’s legislative and executive branch agendas broadly address areas in which greater transparency is needed to ensure public access to vital government information. They make specific recommendations to improve transparency in lobbying, money in politics and government data.
This collection of one pagers outlines specific opportunities for reform in those areas. They detail proposed legislation, executive orders and other White House action, and agency rules changes.
Principles for Transparency in Government
Public oversight, civic participation and electoral engagement—the stuff of democratic accountability—all depend on a transparent, open government.
Indeed, transparency and openness are the very foundations for public trust; without the former the latter cannot survive. The Internet is making increased transparency cheaper, more effective, and in more demand every day as Americans come to expect instantaneous and constant access to all kinds of information. Given the rapid technological advances in how information can be captured, stored, analyzed and shared, the Sunlight Foundation believes it is time to update and expand government’s transparency mandate:
Transparency is Government’s Responsibility:
Transparency must first and foremost be understood as government’s responsibility, since public demand and private/nonprofit responses can reach only so far. Accordingly, both Congress and the Executive Branch must make broad changes in our federal information and technology policies to establish online, ontime public access as a priority for virtually all the operations of the federal government.
Public Means Online:
Whatever information the government has or commits to making public, the standard for “public” should include “freely accessible online.” Information cannot be considered public if it is available only inside a government building, during limited hours or for a fee. In the 21st century, information is properly described as “public” only if it is available online, 24/7, for free, in some kind of reasonably parseable format. Almost all of our public sphere is now online, and our public information should be there, too.
Data Quality and Presentation Matter:
The Internet has redefined effective communications and publishing. It is a 24/7 open medium, in which now standard practices include continuous, contemporaneous dissemination, permanent searchability and reusability, among other key features. The government must adopt the principles that all information and data that the government has decided or hereafter decides should be public must be (i) posted online promptly, (ii) complete and accurate, (iii) searchable and manipulable and (iv) permanently preserved and accessible. Among these four, timeliness is particularly vital for information concerning any ongoing decision making process, such as legislation or regulation. Disclosure should move at the same pace as influence over such decisions; thus arbitrary periodic filing requirements (e.g., annual, quarterly or monthly) violate this standard and render postings less useful to facilitate trust and participation. Fortunately, the Internet enables inexpensive real-time publishing, such as real-time updates we have come to expect for news and stock market transactions. These standards of contemporaneous disclosure are particularly important when it comes to disclosure of lobbying contacts, consideration of legislation, promulgation of regulations or awarding of grants and contracts.
Our government’s role as an information provider has evolved along with our ability to communicate. Today, our newly networked citizenry has rising expectations of greatly expanded access to governmental information, so that it may play a fuller role in understanding, evaluating and participating in the workings of its government.
More open and transparent government can foster more competent and trustworthy behavior by public officials along with a more engaged public.