Watchdogs say Obama has not done enough on government transparency

Government reform groups say President Obama has fallen short on several of his promises to make the White House more ethical and transparent.

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised to create a centralized and searchable public database for lobbying reports, ethics records and campaign finance filings. The promise was part of the Obama-Biden ethics plan to lessen the degree of influence special-interest groups have on his administration.

A White House aide pointed to the website created under the Obama administration, data.gov, which contains more than 250,000 sets of raw government data, as evidence that a comprehensive database was growing rapidly. The site began in 2009 with less than 100 datasets.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama also promised within that plan to allow five days of public comment on non-emergency legislation before he signed it into law. But two of the first bills he signed were posted for public comment less than five days beforehand: the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Obama also said he would “work to reform congressional rules to require all legislative sessions, including committee mark-ups and conference committees, to be conducted in public.”

But watchdog groups pointed to the recent supercommittee on deficit reduction, whose formation Obama lauded and which met behind closed doors, as an example of his failing to keep his word on putting Congress’s work before the public. They also pointed to his campaign pledge to hold healthcare negotiations live on C-SPAN, which they were not.

An aide in the White House said the president did not make the supercommittee’s rules for deliberation and that Obama’s bipartisan healthcare meetings were televised on national television, though not C-SPAN.

Overall, the groups gave Obama a decent record on improving transparency, particularly compared to past administrations. Still, given the promises in 2008, there’s disappointment Obama has not done more.

“This is the first administration that has made a very concerted effort to enhance transparency of most aspects of the governmental process,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “We’ve seen a great deal accomplished under the Obama administration, but there has been somewhat of a letdown for those of us in the reform community because we want more.”

A spokesman for the White House, Eric Schultz, said Obama has reaped a great deal of praise for transforming White House into one of the most transparent in modern times, and that while the administration has accomplished much, it maintains a constant vigilance to always improve levels of openness.

“Over the past three years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever, to provide people with information that they can use in their daily lives, and to solicit public participation in government decision-making and thus tap the expertise that resides outside of government,” said Schultz in a statement.

“While creating a more open government requires sustained effort, our continued efforts seek to promote accountability, provide people with useful information and harness the dispersed knowledge of the American people.”

Holman lauded the website the administration created to track how taxpayer dollars are spent under the bailout of banks and other financial institutions. He also praised the decision to disclose the names of most visitors to the White House, as well as the ban on gifts to executive branch employees.

But on issues of campaign finance transparency and the promise of creating a centralized and searchable public database for all government data, watchdog groups say they’ve been starkly disappointed.

“I have to give them the benefit of the doubt a little bit,” said Meredith McGehee, the Campaign Legal Center’s policy director.

“There was just so many things on their plate, so many competing priorities, and it’s hard to make it all happen. That’s why I’d give them a B- on transparency. They got a good start, but it’s kind of a mile wide and an inch deep,” McGehee said.

Some experts on ethics say the steps Obama has taken have been watered down in implementation.

For example, on Obama’s first full day in office he signed an executive order banning officials who leave his administration from lobbying their former colleagues. He also ensured the release of White House visitor logs in an attempt to show the public exactly who administration officials were meeting with and potentially being influenced by.

But the Sunlight Foundation's policy director, John Wonderlich, said those rules are easily skirted if officials choose to meet with lobbyists away from the White House. Republicans were quick to pounce this year on reports White House officials were meeting business representatives at a Caribou Coffee shop near the White House.

“We can assume that with sensitive meetings the White House is going to try and get around those if they want,” Wonderlich said.

Holman said he hopes to see the list of visitors expanded to include recording meetings between every agency and Cabinet official.

“That should be expanded to the entire executive branch instead of just to the White House, which Obama has indicated he would support but hasn’t made any serious efforts to do so far,” Holman said.

Watchdog groups hope the White House follows through on the 2008 promise to create the centralized database for all government data and spending.

“They’re still interested in it,” Wonderlich said. “We meet with them fairly often on a variety of issues and this hasn’t disappeared from the radar. I think the White House has just had problems figuring out how to live up to that set of promises.”

Wonderlich also pointed to an effort to enact a policy that would publicly reveal letters lawmakers send to the White House requesting funding for projects in their districts.

Watchdog groups are worried about what will happen if Obama loses his reelection bid. They’re pressing the administration to codify some of the internal policies that have been put into place, such as the ban on gifts to executive branch employees.

“It could easily be undone if the achievements are not placed into regulations,” Holman said. “The Obama administration could make it more than just internal policy and start codifying some of these actions and that would make it difficult for a subsequent administration to repeal.”