Agencies flunk libertarian transparency tests

Activists praise House Republicans for making more documents public.

Executive branch agencies under President Obama are being outperformed by Republicans in Congress in a transparency competition judged by an analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.

“None of the grades are very good, but where Congress has weak grades, the Obama administration’s grades are horrible,” said Jim Harper, Cato’s director of information policy studies. He spoke at a panel staged Monday by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation’s Advisory Committee on Transparency at a Capitol Hill hearing room lent by the House Transparency Caucus.

Assigning grades based on public access to documents evaluated using the criteria of authoritative sourcing, availability, machine-discoverability and machine readability, the Cato report card gave Congress As and Bs in releasing such information as lists of members, bills, decisions and votes, and gave lawmakers’ Fs only in their uneven release of amendments, motions and communications.

By contrast, agencies were given an overall grade of D-minus, mostly because there is “no machine-readable federal government organizational chart.”

Agencies received only one B for releasing documents on spending obligations. The executive branch received Fs for documents on projects, budget authority, warrants, apportionments and allocations.

The White House, Harper added, has only a 66 percent compliance rate in fulfilling a promise to wait five days before signing bills so that the public can read the enacted text, noting large controversial bills appear to be rushed into law. “Obama brought an energy, promising transparency during the 2008 campaign,” Harper said, “but this had largely dissipated by 2010.”

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel to the Sunlight Foundation, praised the House for what he called “a cultural shift” in its years working with transparency groups to improve timely release of documents, though the Senate, he added, provides more advance notice of coming committee hearings than does the House.

Hugh Halpern, staff director of the House Rules Committee, said since taking over the House following the 2010 elections Republicans have presided over “the biggest technology change since the mid-1990s, when Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed the Library of Congress to establish” the online service Thomas. He said the so-called read the bill movement translated into rules changes such as treating electronic and paper versions of bills as equivalent, making them available within three days, along with mandatory webcasting of certain hearings.

He said a coming new website on Rules.House.gov will provide data on committee reports in a more structured data format with text of amendments. “Every member’s reaction to proposals to make more information public is to say `No, that creates a communications problem if we’re not controlling it,’ ” Halpern said. “But in the era of Google, YouTube and blogs, the notion that you can sit on it is not realistic. So you give the information to citizens so they can make decisions by debating on the merits, not on who has the best information.”

Halpern noted Congress is only four or five years into the era of using Windows-based document tools, and he thinks of the House -- including representatives and committees -- as 460 different small businesses that all do things differently.

John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, said the House is in a “more responsive posture,” and the webcasting of hearings, which is a prerogative of committee chairs, is universal except for the appropriations committees.

He said the decades-old demand that bills be posted publicly for a full 72 hours before a vote “is a rallying cry” not always adhered to because Congress considers it to be three legislative days, which can differ from calendar days and can be shortened -- often for political expediency.

“The left got angry during debate over the Patriot Act and the right got angry during the health care debate,” he said. “I hope we’re beyond some of that now so that people feel frustrated and powerless a little less often. It’s not about raw power but about public interest in how process should function. The same questions are faced by parliaments all over the world.”

The grade for Congress, said Harper, dropped because “our expectations have risen,” citing the potential for lawmakers to add metadata to documents, such as which sections of the U.S. code a bill would affect and which agencies. “The transparency community has to learn how to use these things before it will show up in the grades,” he added. “Some good things are happening, but it’s hard stuff. We’re all still learning.”

(Image via dreams3d/Shutterstock.com)

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