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On Transparency, Obama Fails Big, Succeeds Small

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1:00 PM, Jan 14, 2010 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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The combination of Obama's blatantly broken pledge to show health-care negotiations on C-SPAN and his approaching one-year anniversary of his inauguration has spurred a round of reflection on just how transparent the administration has been.

One group of transparency advocates (many of them left-leaning) dutifully delivered pretty dubious "A" grade on transparency to the president.

The glowing "report card" from Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG highlights a series of policies enacted by the Obama administration over the last year aimed at increasing government transparency and limiting the influence of lobbyists and other interest groups. The steps have included a ban on lobbyist gifts; restrictions on the hiring of lobbyists; publication of White House visitor logs and other records; and a move to bar lobbyists from serving on advisory boards.

That prompted another transparency organization, The Sunlight Foundation, to declare the "A" premature, giving Obama something more along the lines of an "E" for effort.

Overall, 2009 was a good year for transparency mostly because it was in government’s and the public’s consciousness like never before, and we’ve recapped the year pretty exhaustively.

These things are all true, but we’re certainly not to a place of openness in the executive, and in fact, we have a long way to go before we get transparency results that we can hang our hat on.

It is imperative that the onus remains on the White House to fulfill their big promises, and incumbent upon the media and we as citizens to hold them accountable for doing so.

Within the wonky, back-and-forth world of transparency activists, you will often find more praise for Obama's transparency than in the general public and conventional wisdom. As activists, they're more familiar with the technical, and sometimes mundane, accomplishments that the intersection of new technology and the Obama campaign have produced, such as the promising Open Government Directive:

“Everything we have heard from this administration publicly and privately is they really truly believe in this, and they are really truly intent on making greater openness happen,” the executive director of Openthegovernment.com, Patrice McDermott, said. “It’s going to be hard work for all of us to make sure that the agencies actually do consult with the public and do implement this to the fullest extent.”

McDermott said “the problem with the directive is … there’s no enforcement built in to [it].”

But Obama's problem on transparency is that he may succeed in certain ways, but he fails so spectacularly and publicly that he eclipses his successes. See for reference: The C-SPAN promise, the legislation online for five days before signing promise, the creation of the lobbyist ban, which precipitated the creation of the lobbyist waiver, and the very public pitfalls of making a $787 billion dollar, hastily written giveaway transparent after the fact. 

And, today, the administration once again fails ostentatiously on transparency once again, with this doozy: Joe Biden meets on transparency; meeting closed to press

[Joe Biden] has adopted much the same sort of undetailed schedule as his Republican predecessor, Dick Cheney, who was not in the Senate when Obama was only 11 years old.

In fact, today's Biden schedule highlight is a meeting with the chief of transparency for economic recovery. But, unfortunately, the transparency meeting is non-transparent, closed to the press. (See his full schedule below.) Which makes it -- what? -- secret openness? Open secrecy?

The C-SPAN story is another instance of demonstrable, easily understood violations of transparency promises. And, as Phil Klein notes, the broken promise just got more broken:

The Hill reported that, "President Barack Obama sought to muscle House and Senate Democrats to reach an accord on healthcare reform during a daylong White House meeting Wednesday." So in other words, Obama was leading the talks himself, from the White House, which he has absolute control over, and yet he still wouldn't allow C-SPAN cameras in.

In its first year, the Obama administration has indeed created opportunity on transparency, but largely because its legislative overreach and broken promises have made transparency part of the mainstream news cycle, and something that regular voters now worry about, sometimes intensely.

To be sure, Obama himself and some in the transparency activist community have no love for those pushing hardest and loudest for increased transparency this year. They are at Tea Parties around the country every month. They were on phones in July, demanding that representatives come home to answer to constituents instead of ramming health care through in July, as planned. They were at town halls demanding that representatives read the bills they vote on, and give Americans time to read them, too.

The administration dismisses these people as political adversaries with nothing to offer (and sometimes worse), but in fact, they've created the most visible, and popular push for legislative transparency in years, with an assist from Obama's own rhetoric. Obama's broken promises have made the push from his ideological adversaries viable. Despite its political nature, the movement has created a climate that transparency advocates of all partisan stripes should appreciate.

The Tea Party and transparency pressure has borne fruit, even without Obama's help. Several versions of the health-care bill have been posted on the Internet for 72 hours— a benchmark Congress could ignore with impunity before this debate.

As Obama might say, we have reached a historic and "unprecedented consensus" on the need for more transparency, and for that he should thank Tea Partiers, not bash them. We've reached a technology level, which when combined with public pressure on Obama's promises, changes very basic expectations for how government behaves.

As with the C-SPAN promise, the 5-day rule, phantom districts, and lobbyist waivers, Obama’s promises become leverage to create a more restrained, more responsible government under Democrats or Republicans. In a way he didn't expect or intend, Obama's "bold action" and "inspiring rhetoric" have indeed inspired Americans on transparency.

And, for that I thank the president.

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