Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), thinks that government transparency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

There’s a “dark side to sunlight,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post. “Deliberation, collaboration and compromise rarely flourish in front of TV cameras or when monitored by special interests.”

ADVERTISEMENT
But we wonder whose interests are really harmed by the existing transparency rules?

Maybe Grumet doesn’t like the fact that transparency lets the public see how the BPC lobbies on regulations that the group’s corporate sponsors oppose.

Thanks to a pesky transparency rule, we know that the BPC deployed former senior officials from the Treasury Department to meet with Treasury in late 2012 to discuss issues such as the Volcker Rule—a far-reaching regulation meant to restrain banks from engaging in the type of speculative investing that helped bring the global financial system to the brink of collapse. The BPC team included Phillip Swagel—a former Treasury Assistant Secretary who says the Volcker Rule was a “solution in search of a problem”—and two former Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretaries.

As it turns out, the BPC’s top financial supporters in 2012 included the American Bankers Association, a leading opponent of the Volcker Rule, and Citigroup, which has been “flouting the Volcker Rule” by “engaging in high-risk, proprietary trading,” according to the Rule’s congressional co-sponsor. (BPC’s ties to the banking industry are detailed in a 2013 report by Public Citizen.)

Banks have every right to oppose tougher regulations. But the public also has a right to know when a bank-funded “public interest” group such as the BPC meets with financial regulators, especially if the group is represented by former regulatory officials who went through the revolving door and can exert significant influence on their former agency.

Grumet also takes exception to a law that generally requires federal advisory committees to operate in the open. “While clearly well-intended, the requirements of open meetings are ironically driving serious discussions further underground,” he wrote.

This law, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, is far from perfect—my organization, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), has supported legislation to improve it—and it may often cause discussions to slow down. But the law certainly doesn’t stop advisory boards from conducting their business in private. “Even federal advisory panels may meet in closed door sessions, and, for better or worse, there are many other ways such panels can do their work outside of open sessions, such as delegating work to subcommittees,” Celia Wexler of the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote in a letter to the Post.

Perhaps Grumet is pining for the good old days, when the government could meet in secret with BPC supporters such as ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell to have “serious discussions” about the nation’s energy policy.

As Gary Bass and POGO’s Danielle Brian wrote in Roll Call, the “too much transparency” meme promoted by Grumet is simply a myth. This is especially true in the case of Congress, which, as Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation points out, “has exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act and has no requirements to hold all meetings in public.” There are no rules preventing Members of Congress from meeting with each other in private. Absolutely none.

On a more constructive note, POGO and its allies are supporting meaningful transparency reforms such as modernizing the Freedom of Information Act, bringing more openness to federal grant-making, and making the government’s surveillance activities more transparent and accountable. (It’s only fitting that these legislative proposals were themselves the result of open, bipartisan discussions.) These reforms are not a panacea; there’s much more work to be done to make the federal government more open and effective. But we shouldn’t accept the self-serving arguments of those funded by powerful corporations that thrive in the dark.

Smallberg is from the Project on Government Oversight.