2018 Sunlight Agenda
We have organized our priorities for the Trump administration below. From open data to spending to freedom of information and ethics, we’ll be working to open up the executive branch directly with agencies and Congress.
Restore Visitor Logs: We urged the Obama White House to move beyond the visitor logs disclosure to enact 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. Secrecy on the White House visitor logs showed the Trump administration to be allergic to transparency about power and influence in the people’s house. If the White House does not change its policy, Congress should mandate disclosure.
Improve Ethics Disclosure: Every member of the Cabinet that wants to do more than talk about transparency should have updated machine-readable calendars, meeting records and expenses. Public trust depends upon both transparency and accountability about spending. We’re working with Congress to pass a law that brings disclosure at agencies into the 21st century.
Improve Management of Public 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. Ensuring that public lists of public information are public will continue to be a top priority for Sunlight during the Trump administration.
Reform Money in Politics: Federal agencies and independent agencies can also help safeguard some accountability for how our elections are financed. The Federal Communications Commissions, as they work towards comprehensive disclosure of public files, should ensure that they’re creating the most robust, useful disclosure of ad-buy information, including all markets, structured data, and FEC identifiers. The IRS should investigate and enforce their C4 rules. The Federal Election Commission needs fundamental reform. 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 Trump 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: The USA needs a public beneficial ownership registry. 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 Trump administration should work to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act by fully implementing the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. The new FOIA.gov will be an important symbol and mechanism for Congressional intent, but it’s not enough. The presumption of openness that’s now in the US code should be coupled with actions and legal postures that support claims of openness. The Department of Justice’s regressive FOIA regulations should be replaced with regulations that strengthen public access: it’s time for the Office of Information Policy to publish the “release-to-one, release-to-all” FOIA policy that we and many others contributed to in good faith.
Data Policy: The Trump administration should keep, strengthen, and seek to codify the open data policies that the Obama administration implemented, including the Open Government Directive, order on machine-readable data 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. As we told the White House in 2017, anxiety about open data in the Trump administration has created doubt and uncertainty in many parts of American society, particularly in the scientific and academic communities. Businesses and entrepreneurs need to be able to trust that data disclosures will remain in place if they’re going to be able to rely upon them. Those same stakeholders are negatively affected if the quality or periodicity of government data is diminished, as occurred in Canada. If the goal is to stimulate the use of open government data, it’s important for a chief executive and cabinet secretaries to be cheerleaders for the quality of official statistics, not to cast doubt upon them. Increased risk discourages investment.
Build a Healthy Public Politics: The Bush 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. The hyper-partisan, politically polarized politics that characterized 2017 are toxic for our democracy. In 2018, Sunlight will continue to push for an adult political posture from our leaders that treats public dialog as a goal rather than a barrier.
Open Government Partnership: The Open Government Partnership opened a vital space for important new commitments from heads of state around the world, including in the USA, but now faces global headwinds with the rise of nationalism, populism and a U.S. president and White House that is antagonistic to democratic norms around transparency. While the Trump administration committed to developing a fourth National Action Plan for Open Government, its actions repealing anti-corruption rules commitments, removing visitor logs and taking down the online petition platform cast a shadow on the future of U.S. participation.
National Security: The Trump 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.
Legislative Branch Agenda for the 115th Congress
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 2016 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 last election cycle also demonstrated that the public should see disclosures and disclaimers as electioneering moves online. The Honest Ads Act would add much needed transparency and accountability to online ads.
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.
The OPEN Government Data Act would make open government data the default in U.S. government. In 2018, Congress should pass the evidence-based policymaking bill that passed the House.
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.
Make Congress Smarter About Technology
In April 2018, the public was reminded of how well U.S. Senators understand Facebook, privacy and technology – or not. If we want better public policy and strong oversight, we need to make Congress smarter. Restoring the Office of Technology Assessment could help, but it’s not sufficient. We have a decade of policy recommendations to improve how Congress works that remain part of our agenda.
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.