The Transparency Sham

Congressmen and witnesses critique administration’s transparency at Oversight hearing

Darrell Issa, Elijah Cummings during Sunshine Week 2011 / AP
March 13, 2013

Lawmakers and government transparency experts criticized the Obama administration’s openness at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Wednesday morning.

President Barack Obama’s promise to operate the "most transparent administration in history" animated much of the hearing, with witnesses and legislators noting some progress but much failure to live up to the grand pledge.

"It is particularly a pleasure to be with you here again on Sunshine Week, though it’s unfortunately not as sunny as we’d like," said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the liberal Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

"Sunshine Week" runs from March 10-16 and promotes government transparency.

The president issued an executive order at the beginning of his first term instructing agencies to follow the Freedom of Information Act "with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails."

However, some representatives questioned the executive order’s effectiveness.

Executive agencies only responded to 37.5 percent of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests they received, said Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.), citing a committee report. He also noted that nearly two thirds of government agencies have not updated their FOIA policies, as Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder directed them to.

Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) highlighted the backlog of FOIA requests at agencies.

The president’s executive order conflicts with the agencies’ natural predisposition, said committee chairman Darrell Issa (R., Calif) and Celia Wexler, the senior Washington representative for the Center for Science and Democracy.

"Agency culture always kind of pushes back against transparency," Wexler said.

Issa called agency secrecy a "natural state" that Congress will not be able to change simply by asking it to change.

"The only way that [change] will happen is if rhetoric is also matched by law, if in fact law is enforced and overseen," Issa said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the committee’s ranking member, praised the president’s actions to promote transparency. He asked the witnesses about legislation he and Issa released in draft form this week that would codify as law the president’s executive order.

Wexler urged the committee to overhaul the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act, citing multiple conflicts of interest and the fact that these committees often meet in secret. The committee also discussed the DATA and GRANT Acts, which mandate greater transparency in the federal bureaucracy.

Canterbury said that the administration has done a good job releasing information to the public but criticized them for other things. She singled out the "national security state" for being overly secretive and highlighted an executive order that curtails disclosures to Congress.

"You can’t do oversight and there won’t be checks and balances if the president is allowed to keep secrets from Congress," she said.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, said that the government does not release much of its information in easily accessible forms.

Harper grades how available the government’s data is, and "the grades are relatively poor," he said. Much of it is released in a .pdf format, which is far less accessible than other forms, he said.

"I found that the Obama administration was somewhat lagging the House [of Representatives] in terms of transparency. Obama controls a great deal of the government obviously and has not met the outsized promises that he made as a campaigner," he said.

Harper also expressed dismay that there is not a "machine-readable" government structure chart to aid legislators and the public in monitoring the government. He noted that such a chart would help legislators and others see exactly how legislation would effect various parts of the government.