Is Obama Breaking His Vow Of Transparency?

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The White House claims that President Obama's administration will be "the most open and transparent in history," and announced on Friday it will convene a conference on March 12 to ensure "transparency" in the way money from last month's massive spending bill is distributed.

This would be a change from the secretive way that bill rocketed into law. As a candidate for office, Mr. Obama promised he would "not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days."

That didn't happen. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus bill, was approved by the Senate on a Thursday. Mr. Obama signed it on a Monday, just three days later.

Mr. Obama also signed the CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization) bill and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act without waiting the promised five days.

Were those all "emergency" bills? Probably not. Even the Democrat-controlled Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 8 percent of the "stimulus" spending comes in budget year 2009. If setting government spending levels in 2010, 2011, and 2012 qualifies as an emergency, it's hard to imagine what doesn't.

This came after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders rushed the 1,027-page stimulus conference report to a vote and gave their colleagues only hours to read it. (A few days earlier, the House had unanimously approved a non-binding, pro-transparency measure that assured members they would have 48 hours to read the bill.)

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) told CNSNews.com that none of his Senate colleagues would "have the chance" to read the final version before the vote. A Rasmussen Reports poll conducted at the time found that only 24 percent of respondents believed Congress will understand what they're voting on.

For an administration that promised to be the most "transparent in history," and for a House speaker who promised the "most open" Congress in history, this may not be the most auspicious beginning.

Before taking office, Mr. Obama promised new openness in the presidential transition, saying "you can track these meetings" his transition staff had with groups seeking to influence policy. A "Your Seat At The Table" memo said: "This scope is a floor, not a ceiling, and all staff are strongly encouraged to include additional materials."

That never happened. Although Mr. Obama did disclose documents submitted to the transition staff, his Web site never provided a list of meetings with the names of groups and identities of participants.

Instead, only a list of documents submitted was made public -- meaning that if a meeting took place between the transition team and outside groups and no documents were exchanged, it remains secret. (On the other hand, Obama did disclose donors to the inauguration, and posting the list of documents was more than his predecessors did.)

An article about transparency posted on the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review in January argued: "During the campaign, reporters' access to Obama was severely limited. On-the-record conversations with the candidate were even more so. Indeed, Obama's overall treatment of the press—not just in his general rejection of the day-to-day news cycle, but also in his tendency to shun his national traveling press corps... created the impression that its members were, to him, a buzzing nuisance. Instead of the voice of the people." And Politico.com noted that the president agreed to disclose contacts between his staff and then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office, but stopped short of releasing e-mails or other details about those contacts.

It has been left to the Republicans to reshape themselves as the pro-transparency front. During last month's debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act bill, an alliance of largely conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation, Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Freform, and Dick Armey's FreedomWorks created a Web site called ReadTheStimulus.org.

That represents something of a turnabout for many of these groups, which were not uniformly outspoken advocates of government openness under President George W. Bush (whose administration has been accused of being the most secretive since President Nixon's).

The month after Mr. Obama was elected, the Heritage Foundation was already repositioning itself as pro-transparency. But it was less enthusiastic about the topic when the Patriot Act was being debated in 2001; Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said at the time that "what we have today is an outrageous procedure: A bill, drafted by a handful of people in secret, comes to us without a committee review and immune to amendment." (Heritage remains an ardent supporter of the 2001 law.)

In fairness to Mr. Obama's White House, it said in a blog post last month that a five-days-before-signing policy will "be implemented in full soon." In the meantime, another pro-transparency option might be to support the Read the Bills Act, which would require both chambers of Congress to read aloud the complete text of proposed laws and post the text on the Internet a week before the vote.
  • Declan McCullagh On Twitter»

    Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.

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