Visitor logs are public, emails and phone calls are not
Updated: Monday, July 9th, 2012 | By J.B. Wogan
Before taking office, President Barack Obama mapped out an ethics plan that would make the federal government's relationship to lobbyists more transparent, so that "Washington works for the people, not the special interests,” according to his 2008 campaign literature.
Part of that effort meant greater openness about which special interest groups were communicating with White House staff.
In September 2009, the president announced his voluntary disclosure policy: Ever since then, anyone can find the names of most people who visit the White House, a list that White House staff update on a monthly basis.
It's not totally comprehensive. These visitor logs do not include personal visits unrelated to official or political business and they do not include "a small group of particularly sensitive meetings,” such as meetings about potential Supreme Court nominees.
The other problem with the logs is that the Obama administration considers them voluntary in nature. They should be available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act, said Amy Bennett, assistant director of OpentheGovernment.org.
Because Obama sees the visitor logs as voluntary, "a future administration would not be bound” to maintain the policy on a permanent basis, Bennett said.
Those criticisms aside, open government advocates have welcomed the visitor logs.
"It has worked tremendously well,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the open-government group Public Citizen. Holman said conflict-of-interest scandals haven't plagued the Obama administration the way they did under presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
Since releasing the visitor logs, the Obama administration appears to have stopped working on other parts of this promise. For example, Obama said he would amend existing executive orders about White House communications. Further progress on the campaign promise would probably mean keeping records of any email or phone call between a lobbyist or White House staff.
We read through Obama's executive orders in the Federal Register for any kind of amendment related to White House communications -- the changes never happened. The visitor logs were part of a voluntary disclosure policy, so we also looked through proclamations, memoranda and determinations. Still nothing.
None of the open-government groups we contacted could recall efforts by the White House to disclose emails and phone calls to the public.
"I can't think of a thing that would fall into that category,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director for the open-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I'm not sure exactly how you would do it, to be honest. I'm not sure what the mechanism would be for that.”
"It does become impractical to require disclosure on every phone call or email. It would capture so much activity,” Holman said. "It would create this massive database that would be very difficult to peruse. I'm not sure that would be very useful.”
The intent behind the promise appears to be largely about restricting the influence of special interest groups on White House staff, and in that sense, the administration has been active, Holman said.
Holman highlighted Obama's ethics pledge that every employee in the executive branch must sign. Here are some of the ways it limits conflict-of-interest situations in the White House: It bans employees from receiving gifts from lobbyists, it places a two-year ban on appointees working on issues related to their former workplace and it prohibits former appointees from lobbying government agencies they just left.
Overall, Obama has released White House visitor logs that cover many, but not all, visitors. But emails and phone calls aren't disclosed to the public yet, we rate this a Compromise.
Interview with Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, July 3, 2012
Interview with Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, July 3, 2012
Interview with Amy Bennett, assistant director for OpentheGovernment.org, July 6, 2012
Federal Register, Memorandum for heads of executive departments and agencies, Freedom of Information Act, Jan. 21, 2009
Whitehouse.gov, Executive Order 13490: Ethics commitments for executive branch personnel, Jan. 12, 2009
Whitehouse.gov, White House Visitor Records
Whitehouse.gov, White House voluntary disclosure policy
Whitehouse.gov, Opening up the people's house, Sept. 4, 2009
Visitor logs, but not much else so far
During the campaign, Barack Obama promised that in his administration, "Communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff [will be] disclosed to the public."
It took some prodding, even several lawsuits, but on Sept. 4, 2009, the White House announced that it will begin to release its visitor logs. There are significant caveats -- all records will be between 90 and 120 days old by the time they are released, the releases only cover addresses, and "appointments that cannot be disclosed because of national security imperatives or their necessarily confidential nature" will not be listed -- but the White House nevertheless referred to the decision as a "major milestone in government transparency."
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a transparency watchdog group, issued a statement after the September decision to begin releasing the logs: "The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise. The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House. In contrast, the Obama administration — by putting visitor records on the White House Web site — will have the most open White House in history."
Still, visitor logs are a far cry from communications about regulatory policymaking between people inside and outside the White House.
John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, an open government group, said the way the promise is written suggests a broad policy of making publicly available such things as e-mails and other communications, not just visitor logs.
There have been some spotty attempts at transparency along those lines, some blog posts about regulatory matters involving the economic stimulus package and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, for example, Wonderlich said. But those related mostly to lobbyists' communication with White House staff, "Nothing that could be applied broadly to regulatory policymaking."
Wonderlich noted that Cass Sunstein was only confirmed as the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in September. And in December, the White House issued an open government directive, which gives Sunstein 120 days to initiate a review of the White House rules on public disclosures and transparency.
"He (Sunstein) is expected to play a major role in the upcoming policy review," Wonderlich said. "I wouldn't be surprised if this promise is on the plate for the reform process."
So this promise may be addressed in coming months. But so far, the White House has not yet delivered on Obama's pledge to make communications about regulatory policymaking available to the public. And so we rate this promise Stalled.
The White House, White House Voluntary Disclosure Policy: Visitor Access Records, Accessed Dec. 22, 2009
Citizens for Responsibility and Washington, Obama yields on White House visitor logs, Sept. 4, 2009
The White House, Transparency like you've never seen before, Oct. 30, 2009
The White House, Opening up the people's house, Sept. 4, 2009
The White House, November Release of White House Visitor Records, Nov. 25, 2009
MSNBC News, Obama blocks list of visitors to White House, June 16, 2009
Interview with John Wonderlich, policy director for the Sunlight Foundation, Jan. 13, 2010
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