Obama administration transparency a tale of two governments, says POGO

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Transparency under the Obama administration has largely been a tale of "two American governments," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight.

"One looks like a democracy and the other is national security state, where claims of national security usually trump openness and accountability," she told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform March 13.

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel at the Sunlight Foundation, echoed Canterbury when he said the administration's progress toward a 21st Century vision of transparency have been "rhetorical strides." Schuman asked Congress to encourage the administration to make several changes:

  • Strengthen and codify White House visitor log rules in order to strip them of loopholes;
  • require that all releasable Justice Department office of legal counsel opinions be posted online--the Sunlight Foundation found two-fifths are missing; and
  • require the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs to fully disclose when and how it is lobbied on major rulemakings.

Schuman said sunlight should be shone on Capitol Hill as well as the White House. The Congressional Research Service, which regularly distributes reports to thousands of legislative staffers, should systematically publish reports for the public.

"We ask that the committee post on its website all reports relevant to its jurisdiction," said Schuman.

While Canterbury lauded the Homeland Security Department for its progress in making processing changes that help reviewers prioritize cases in the FOIA backlog, she criticized the Justice Department for compounding FOIA problems.

"DOJ is a big part of the problem," said Canterbury. "There is a true conflict of mission there when you have the agency defending in court the other agency's right to withhold under FOIA. They will have a defensive posture and you can see that defensive posture in their own rulemaking."

The creation of an independent entity to enforce FOIA would help check DOJ action, she said.

On March 13, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) published a discussion draft of the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013 (.pdf). The bill would strengthen the role of FOIA ombudsman and expand review of FOIA compliance, as well as form a chief FOIA office council. It would require agencies to more clearly demonstrate why information may be withheld.

Panelists expressed support for the forthcoming Issa-Cummings bill and urged legislators to revisit and push through several transparency bills that introduced by the 112th congress. These bills included the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act (H.R. 2146), Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments of 2011 (H.R. 3124), and Lobbyist Disclosure Enhancement Act (H.R. 2339).

Canterbury said POGO prefers the House version of the DATA Act to the Senate version. Ideally the DATA Act should require unique identifiers for federal entities, recipients and obligations, and standard, governmentwide spending data formats and tagging that would improve database linkages and interoperability.

If those two features are included in the act, other elements will be easier to include as well. These include Treasury outlay data matching, sub-recipient data reporting, frequent data quality assessments and review by an independent board.

For more:
- go to the hearing page (includes prepared testimony and archived webcast)
- download the draft of the "FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2013" (.pdf)

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