An update on government transparency

Tags: , , , , , — Jeff @ 11:02

I commented earlier about governmental transparency and cited the proposed stimulus bill as an instance where transparency had not yet been achieved. Since the final iteration of the stimulus (more accurately, a conference report resolving differences between the House and Senate bills previously approved) is coming to final votes in both houses today assuming all goes according to plan, I think a brief update on the situation is in order.

As far as I understand it, the final version of the stimulus was first sent to lobbyists on Washington, D.C.’s K Street late Wednesday or early yesterday. Sometime strictly after that, congressmen received final copies. Finally, last night at 23:32 EST, Speaker Pelosi (more precisely, a staff member) announced the final conference report and joint bill text; the two are split across multiple government sites, so they may have been available earlier given extra diligence in searching for them, but it’s impossible to say. One news source says the House vote may come around 13:00 or 14:00 EST today (so about as I make this post), or about 13-14 hours after the initial public posting; the Senate vote may come sometime later in the evening, or perhaps around 22 hours later at most. It’s not quite the 48 hours unanimously agreed to by the House around, roughly, H1096 in the congressional records of the House from February 10 (readthestimulus.org has better details, but they don’t also have good permalinks, so search for “48” in the page), but 13-14 hours (or some unspecified amount of time more, if the text was released earlier in private) should be close enough for everyone, right?

The Speaker really could have done a better job of making the process a bit more transparent, but I suppose she thinks in an emergency the agreed-upon rules can’t be accorded muchany importance if they get in the way of “necessary” legislation. To be clear, this isn’t President Obama’s bailiwick, so he can’t be faulted for this lack of transparency; it would have been nice, however, if he had publicly noted it and requested the process be modified. It’s understandable that President Obama isn’t bringing this short-circuited process to greater light given that it’s a bill drafted by his own party, but it’s not exactly commendable, either.


Re: Watching history in the making…

Tags: , , , , — Jeff @ 23:28

I agree with John that it’s good to see enacted legislation made more accessible to the public. (The referenced bill was available as always through the Library of Congress’s Thomas system, of course, but if you’ve ever attempted to use the system it’s, well, horrible. Permanent links are difficult if not impossible to find [I’m pretty sure the given URL isn’t permanent, given the “temp” within it; I found it by searching for “ledbetter”], bill text is “splashed” into the page with no containing box to draw the eye or limit line length, search navigation text is preformatted [why?!?!], the “XML display” of a bill isn’t even sent as XML, and overall the site’s just ugly.) Engagement in the political process first and foremost requires knowledge: of the issues, of the bills under consideration, of the enacted laws, and of the people in the government.

(On a mostly tangential note, I commend the White House for linking to Cornell/LII’s Supreme Court collection archives for the Ledbetter decision in their Now Comes Lilly Ledbetter post [although I’m a bit mystified by their use of a visiting-third-party-site splash dialog]. I’ve found the LII collection to be an invaluable reference for reading Supreme Court syllabi, opinions, and dissents as I’ve grown more interested in the the Supreme Court and its legal processes. Compare the formatting of opinions at LII with that of Thomas, and it should be clear exactly how bad Thomas really is; the LII could really teach them a thing or two about designing a pleasant reading experience. And, of course, what kind of shill would I be if I didn’t include a donation link? 🙂 )

All that said, as I look at the White House blog, it seems like something’s, well, missing. Reviewing laws after they’ve been enacted is all well and good, but…isn’t that strikingly non-participatory? Once a bill’s passed and signed, it’s law — and the participation phase is over. It seems unlikely the issues in the Ledbetter act will return to legislative prominence for, at an absolute minimum, another two years. Are slight tweaks really likely to be made riders on other bills in the meantime? It seems unlikely. The time for true participation in a bill’s legislative process is prior to its enactment, yet I don’t see much on the White House blog regarding in-progress legislation that hasn’t been enacted (at least not in the way of links to the bills themselves; there’s a reasonable amount of advocacy).

Consider, for example, what is probably the most far-reaching and important bill under consideration right now: the $850 billion stimulus package. Why wasn’t the House version of the stimulus posted (before or after its approval, in intermediate or final form) on the White House blog? Why isn’t the Senate version posted now? (I had to track down both texts via readthestimulus.org.) This isn’t President Obama’s responsibility (rather, it belongs with the House and Senate as the overseers of the legislative process), but, particularly given his rhetoric on government transparency, it is certainly his duty. This simply goes to show that despite any politician’s rhetoric about transparency, we will always need thirdparty efforts to make the workings of government more transparent.

Some last food for thought: does a smaller government have less to hide (and thus require less overall effort to provide transparency)?