Amid themes of innovation and change, President Obama dedicated a few moments during the State of the Union address to comment on government reform. He called for increased transparency from members of Congress regarding special interests, and highlighted measures aimed at bolstering government accountability:
In the coming year, we will also work to rebuild people’s faith in the institution of government. Because you deserve to know exactly how and where your tax dollars are being spent, you will be able to go to a website and get that information for the very first time in history. Because you deserve to know when your elected officials are meeting with lobbyists, I ask Congress to do what the White House has already done: put that information online. And because the American people deserve to know that special interests aren’t larding up legislation with pet projects, both parties in Congress should know this: if a bill comes to my desk with earmarks inside, I will veto it.
A follow-up fact sheet circulated by the White House elaborated on the point of making more data available online, stating that a new website would “let taxpayers know how their taxes are spent across 20-25 categories of federal spending, including Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, education, foreign aid, and other programs.” In addition, members of Congress are being asked to develop a system for disclosing meetings with lobbyists similar to the one that already exists to track visits to the White House.
Some view this push for online divulgence of government information as a move to pre-empt WikiLeaks and diminish the impact of “leakers.” Others are praising the President -- who called the United States a “nation of Google and Facebook” -- for recognizing the Internet as a valid space for promoting transparency.
Yet, Obama’s implication that Congress need only mimic the example of the White House visitors’ log glosses over the way that this model is reshaping – but not necessarily fixing – the process of lobbying. This past June, the New York Times reported that skirting the White House log was as simple as moving meetings with lobbyists from the White House to coffee shops across the street. The Sunlight Foundation blogged about the same type of problem regarding earmark reform:
Unfortunately, a veto threat is an unlikely fix to our earmark issues. It's unclear how long it'll last, or whether it's a threat that Congress will accept. Even if they do, no one expects earmarks to end, but instead to continue under a different procedure -- phonemarking, lettermarking, and who knows what else.
Lastly, although creation of a new website is a fine idea, it stops short of being truly transformative. What if, for example, these data were made directly available to media outlets and oversight groups?
Renewed talk of transparency invokes a measure of déjà vu as we remember Obama’s famous 2008 campaign promise to be the “most open and transparent transition in history.” But a 2010 “secrecy report card” issued by the group OpenTheGovernment.org, which gave Obama a mixed grade on government openness, revealed that although the administration has taken steps toward openness (such as creating a declassification center within the National Archives and Records Administration), it has still spent billions of dollars on creating and defending classified material. Furthermore, the Obama administration has waged an aggressive and unprecedented war on “leakers” – indicting five current and former government employees.
The Obama administration’s plan for government reform has solid bases. Hopefully, this time, the administration will not only keep moving forward on its open government initiatives but also take time to revisit some of its own very real affronts to transparency.
Lindsay Bigda is Communications Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.