Monday, November 24th, 2014

The Obameter

Centralize ethics and lobbying information for voters


"Will create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format."


Updates

More than three years in, combined website emerges

During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama promised to "create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format."

On March 8, 2012, the White House unveiled 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.

In a blog post, John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group, wrote that the new site "allows for keyword searches, displaying relevant results from a variety of different sources, and also allowing bulk downloads of the related data.”

Wonderlich wrote that the site is "unlikely” to become "the main destination for investigative journalists or ethics officials.” But he added that this was "a tricky promise to fulfill, which is probably part of the reason it's taken almost four years to implement. It's tricky because presidents haven't played this role before -- of trying to bring together various sources of ethics data into a single search, to empower public oversight. That's the reason that we're excited about Ethics.gov -- the president is acknowledging the role of public oversight and asserting that the president has a responsibility to create meaningful online disclosure of ethics and influence information.”

Wonderlich offered special praise for the travel reports, which "weren't easy to get before,” and the ability to search for a name and see that person"s White House visits alongside campaign contributions. "That's a pretty exciting view,” he wrote.

We asked both Wonderlich and Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, whether they thought this qualified as a Promise Kept. Both said they felt it did.

We rate this a Promise Kept.

Sources:

White House, "Fact Sheet: We Can"t Wait: White House Launches Ethics.gov to Promote Government Accountability and Transparency," March 8, 2012

New York Times, "White House Ethics Hub Goes Live Online," March 8, 2012

Sunlight Foundation, "White House Launches ethics.gov” (blog post by John Wonderlich), March 8, 2012

Email interview with Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, Mar. 9, 2012

Email interview with John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, Mar. 9, 2012

After nearly two years, no sign of centralized database

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format." As we noted in our previous update, much of this was actually implemented after passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2007, thanks to Obama's leadership in the Senate.
 
Under that law, the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate maintain databases of lobbying reports and campaign contributions by lobbyists and lobbyist-controlled political action committees. The databases provide much more information on lobbying and campaign contribution filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format than was previously available.
 
However, as we noted previously, the data is not located in a single, unified database but in a series of separate databases. And in the 14 months since our last update was published, there's been no further progress on centralizing them, experts said.
 
"No such single database yet exists," said Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency group.

In general, the administration has taken steps to improve public access to Internet-based data, whether it's on the stimulus-tracking Recovery.gov website or a series of other online portals. But we interpret the word "centralized" as the crux of this promise, since it would offer information-seekers the most convenient access to the data the administration says it wants to make available. And that hasn't happened yet. If it does emerge before Obama leaves office, we'll change our rating, but for now, we're calling this a Promise Broken.

Sources:

White House, Open Government Initiative innovations page, accessed Jan. 7, 2011

E-mail interview with Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, Jan. 7, 2011

E-mail interview with Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, Jan. 6, 2011

E-mail interview with Jim Harper, director of information policy studies, Cato Institute, Jan. 6, 2011

Access to data is improved, but not as much as promised

As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to "create a centralized Internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format." Much of this was actually implemented after passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush in 2007 thanks to Obama's leadership in the Senate.
 
Under that law, the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate maintain databases of lobbying reports and campaign contributions by lobbyists and lobbyist-controlled political action committees. The databases do indeed provide lobbying and campaign contribution filings in a searchable, sortable and downloadable format, watchdogs say. In fact, many media outlets have used these databases to research investigative stories.
 
"We have put more info online than ever before, in a searchable, sortable, downloadable format," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen.

But Holman and others add that HLOGA does not fully meet the standard Obama set out in his campaign promise. The databases available do not include ethics records, and they are not a single, unified database, but rather a series of separate databases.
 
Meanwhile, the administration has made a number of improvements in other varieties of disclosure, mostly in a piecemeal fashion. Organizations seeking money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program or the economic stimulus bill must disclose their lobbying activities, for instance, and these must in turn be offered to the public electronically. Some watchdogs have said the follow-through on these initiatives has been imperfect, but the administration has at least established the rules.
 
In addition, the public can now obtain financial disclosure forms for executive branch officials -- though at least for now, the forms have to be requested individually, rather than being immediately downloadable from the Internet. Finally, the White House is now posting visitor logs on the Web.
 
Transparency advocates agree that the administration's efforts fall short of ideal -- and fall short of Obama's campaign promise. But they add that disclosure of key information is now much more extensive and more user-friendly than it was just a few years ago. And they sense that, despite the current shortcomings, the White House is committed to improving transparency. So we'll rate their efforts on this promise as In the Works.

Sources:

Congressional Quarterly, Senate floor vote results on S. 1 from the 110th Congress, Jan. 18, 2007
 
The White House, SF 278 request form , accessed Nov. 19, 2009

Treasury Department, "Treasury Secretary Opens Term With New Rules To Bolster Transparency, Limit Lobbyist Influence in Federal investment Decisions" ( news release ), Jan. 27, 2009
 
Daniel Schuman, "The TARP Lobbying Rules: What They Say And What They Mean For Transparency" (Sunlight Foundation blog post ), Oct. 15, 2009
 
Daniel Schuman, "TARP Lobbying Disclosure: What a Difference a Day Makes" (Sunlight Foundation blog post ), Oct. 15, 2009
 
Daniel Schuman, "Stimulus Lobbying Rules, Take Two" (Sunlight Foundation blog post ), July 27, 2009

Interview with Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, Nov. 19, 2009
 
Interview with Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, Nov. 19. 2009
 
Interview with Interview with Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, Nov. 19, 2009
 
E-mail interview with Brett G. Kappel, counsel at the law firm Arent Fox LLP, Nov. 19, 2009
 
Interview with Jim Harper, director of information policy studies, Cato Institute, Nov. 19, 2009