Obama Calls For Greater Transparency

BlogHer Original Post

State of the Union addresses is are kind of like that story of the blind men and the elephant, where you are more likely to remember the part right in front of you. If you listened to President Barack Obama’s speech last night, maybe the line that stuck out most for you was about equal pay for equal work for women, or his vow to push health care reform forward, or to take the financial crisis in hand. You may or may not have noticed the part where he talked about strengthening transparency, a topic near and dear to our heart at the Sunlight Foundation. Here’s why you should pay attention.

President Obama called for strengthening lobbying and earmark disclosure rules, as well as dealing with the damage done to campaign finance law by last week’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United. These are crucial steps in helping the public keep our government accountable, which we’ll need if we want to accomplish all the other tasks he put on the country’s plate, from funding higher education to ending our involvement in Iraq.

Right now, if I want to find out if a particular bank lobbyist talked to a member of Congress on a particular date about the student loan program, I can’t. Our lobbying disclosure laws require only that a lobbyist report the fact he or she lobbied, but not whom, or when, and only months after the fact. There are also loopholes that prevent me from finding out if a lobbyist acting on behalf of a foreign government was pushing a particular policy in Congress.

President Obama Delivers State Of The Union Address

There’s really no excuse for this lack of information for the public. The same technology that lets us check an ATM for our bank balances could let us keep up to date on the health care lobbying. But of course official Washington has long dragged its collective feet in getting us the informational goods quickly and accurately. It’s hard to find a lawmaker who doesn’t think it’s easier to get things done behind closed doors. In contrast, we believe that all this information should be available in real time, online.

Another important announcement by the president was the call for posting all congressional earmarks on a website. This fact sheet from the administration states that these earmarks should be in a searchable, user-friendly database. This is another case of common sense. Lawmakers already disclose earmarks, but in hodge podge fashion, scattered across many websites, making it difficult to gather the information. There’s absolutely no substantive reason not to make this information more accessible to the public—only congressional foot dragging. We can’t hold government accountable for spending if we can’t easily find out what is being requested for which projects.

Finally, at the Sunlight Foundation, we were happy to see President Obama acknowledge the damage done to campaign finance law by Citizens United, which allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns, and call for legislative solutions to ameliorate it. A strong part of any fix must be beefed up disclosure of any corporate spending on campaigns. We need to know who is spending how much, when, and where the money is going. And we don’t want to wait for this information for any longer than 24 hours after an expenditure is made.

Demanding that government be transparent is another way of insisting that we all be involved. You may not have the cash to hire an expensive lobbyist to make your personal case to your senator about an important issue. But if you can find out that your senator talked to that lobbyist, yesterday, about that same issue, that gives you crucial information. And that could make a difference.



Nancy Watzman

consultant, Sunlight Foundation



www.muckrakingmom.com Because MUCK doesn't scare MOMs


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