How the White House stole transparency

’Tis the season for holiday cartoons, and, recently, while my son was watching the annual classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” it got me thinkingabout how sometimes things get stolen from you and you don’t even realize it until it’s too late.

For example, in my opinion, the administration’s demonization and backward policies regarding law-abiding lobbyists has actually decreased and stolen transparency in Washington, not increased it.

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With that in mind, I think we need to shed a little sunlight on “Grinch Central” (the White House) and look at a couple of policies implemented over the past year and show how those actions have decreased transparency. We have all heard the phrase “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” so let’s take a quick look at a couple of these policies and see if they increased transparency and helped officials make merit-based decisions.

During the discussion over stimulus funds, we all know that there was an initial ban on lobbyists having oral communications with the administration. This removed the only people (lobbyists) who are required by law to disclose whom they met with and why, and inserted individuals into these meetings who had no rules or regulations placed on them. More or less transparency?

As a side note, in an attempt to increase transparency, the American League of Lobbyists, the Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington and the ACLU recommended to the administration that all individuals meeting on the stimulus funding be reported, not just the federally registered lobbyists. That recommendation was brushed aside.

What about the shortsighted policy of removing lobbyists from serving on trade advisory boards and committees? The rationale for this decision was that while there was no specific scandal or case of impropriety, they were removing these subject-matter experts (lobbyists) before there could be one! Does that mean we should put every dog down in America simply because it could or might someday bite? Besides being discriminatory toward a single class of individuals, what the administration fails to realize is that it is removing the only people on these boards who are regulated by stringent laws and penalties! The administration will be replacing them with corporate heads of companies who are not bound by any rules or regulations. Hmmm, who do you think might have more of a vested interest in serving on these boards? More or less transparency?

As reported in the media, the number of lobbying terminations — or those who deregistered — is at an all-time high. The second-quarter filings state that there were over 1,400 terminations since April 2009. Does anyone seriously believe that with massive issues like healthcare, cap-and-trade, transportation reauthorization, TARP and ARRA being discussed, 10 percent of the lobbying community simply quit? In many organizations, people who previously registered as lobbyists just to be on the safe side of the law simply deregistered and stated that they do not meet the thresholds for registering. More or less transparency?

If transparency were key to the administration, then why would it even consider keeping the White House social secretary from speaking with Congress about the party crashers at the state dinner? This seems like a simple request, but highlights a policy of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

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On a positive note, I do want to applaud the administration for its Open Government Initiative, which will bring more sunlight into its own inner workings.

It’s about time! It has taken just about a year to get this under way, and it is still in the planning phase, but it shows promise. The unfortunate part of this great initiative is that it should have been the first and central issue that the president took on, instead of focusing energy on trying to further demonize the registered, compliant and already heavily regulated lobbying community.

I honestly believe that our government should be transparent, and that should include processes for all who interact with it, but that standard must be applied equally across the board and not single out an identifiable class of individuals just because of a job title. It is true that sunlight is a great disinfectant, but as we all know, too much of it can also cause cancer.

Wenhold, CAE, is a founding partner of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, a Washington government-affairs and grassroots lobbying firm. He also serves as president of the American League of Lobbyists. He can be reached at dwenhold@mwcapitol.com .