Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

The Obameter report card on transparency promises

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama promised more transparency in the White House.
On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama promised more transparency in the White House.

PolitiFact is tracking more than 500 promises Barack Obama made in the 2008 campaign, including 35 on transparency.

We selected 14 core promises on government transparency that range from creating an ethics and lobbying database to televising health care discussion on C-SPAN. Overall, Obama kept four, compromised on five and broke five of these pledges.

Transparency promises: Kept

- One of the first promises Obama crossed off his to-do list was to roll back some Bush administration restrictions on presidential records. He signed an executive order that restored a 30-day time frame for former presidents to review records before they are released. It also eliminated the right for the vice president or family members of former presidents to do the reviews.

- In March 2010, Obama signed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which goes beyond his promise to create a international tax haven watch list: It’s a whole new layer of scrutiny for both Americans who have overseas accounts and foreign financial institutions that have Americans among their account-holders.

- Two years later, he centralized ethics and lobbying information for voters on Ethics.gov, a website that combines one-stop-shopping for information on White House visitor records, Office of Government Ethics travel reports, Lobbying Disclosure Act data, Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act data, Federal Election Commission individual contribution reports, FEC candidate reports and FEC committee reports.

- Finally, Obama created a national declassification center, which has the potential to make information across all agencies open to the public. Before, each agency had its own declassification process, which tended to be slow and inefficient.   

Transparency promises: Compromise

- Obama said he would require his appointees to conduct the significant business of regulatory agencies in public. He put plans and policies in place, but some agencies haven’t always followed his orders, and rulemaking remains a largely opaque process.

- Obama said he would increase whistleblower protections for federal employees. He hasn’t, but we gave him some credit for nominating appointees who give whistleblowers a fair shot of winning cases they bring before the independent, quasi-judicial agency, the Merit Systems Protection Board. He also worked on an enhanced whistleblower law that Congress never passed. On national security, his administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than any previous president, which one expert told us could have "a chilling effect" on whistle blowing.

- Obama said he would make public communications between outside groups and White House staff. He did release White House visitor logs that cover many, but not all, visitors. When it comes to communications as a whole, he hasn’t hasn’t made records of emails and phone calls available to the public yet.

- Obama said he would require more disclosure and a waiting period for earmarks in Congress. Obama needed Congress’ cooperation to earn a Promise Kept. No such luck. We found that the House already has an earmark disclosure policy in place, which was probably the model for this campaign promise. There was some progress in the Senate, but the disclosures are not easily searchable and they aren’t available for public comment 72 hours before a vote.

- He said he would establish transparency standards for military contractors, in part by directing the State and Defense departments to establish protocols for how they choose to hire contractors for work, rather than do it themselves. He did this, but didn’t add much transparency to military contracting.

Transparency promises: Broken

- Obama said he would allow five days of public comment before signing bills. He has broken this promise repeatedly in his presidency. Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at The Cato Institute, keeps an ongoing "Sunlight before Signing" database of bills signed without five days of public comment. As of Jan. 25, 2012, Obama had signed about 48 percent of bills without meeting this "sunlight" standard.

- Obama promised an end to closed-door negotiations and televise health care reform talks on C-SPAN. But he didn’t deliver. Instead of open talks on C-SPAN, we got more of the same — talks behind closed doors at the White House and Congress.

- Obama said he would create a public "contracts and influence" database. Now we have a system online that includes the track record and performance of federal contractors, but it doesn't contain information on the "influence" bit, such as contractor lobbying expenditures or campaign contributions.

- Obama said he would expose special interest tax breaks to public scrutiny, but he never pushed for, much less created, an online database linking tax breaks to corporate recipients.

- Piggybacking off a bill he introduced as a senator, Obama said he would seek independent watchdog agency to investigate congressional ethics violations. Before he took office, the House of Representatives created an independent office that does this, but the Senate doesn’t have one and Obama hasn’t worked to change that.