article

02.12.09

What's Obama Hiding?

The president rode into office with a pledge to post pending legislation on the White House website. But as the frighteningly long and complex stimulus bill comes to his desk, he’s failed to live up to his promise. What happened?

Barack Obama pledged to use technology to bring openness and accountability to the White House. But he's already broken a major campaign promise—and with an $800 billion stimulus package waiting in the wings, the transparency advocates who greeted his election with optimism are rightly getting nervous.

At issue is Obama's vow to post all "non-emergency" legislation for five days at WhiteHouse.gov before signing it, giving the public the opportunity to submit its comments to the administration. That promise quickly fell by the wayside. The White House didn't seek comments on the first bill the president signed—the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—until after he had already put pen to paper. Obama didn't provide a five-day review for the State Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorization bill, either. The new federal chief technology officer was supposedly to lead these techno-transparency efforts, but three weeks into the new administration, that position has yet to be filled.

Obama has already broken a major campaign promise—and with an $800 billion stimulus package waiting in the wings, the transparency advocates who greeted his election with optimism are rightly getting nervous.

"It really has to make you question the sincerity of their promise about greater transparency," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that looks for technological ways to improve government transparency. "I know there's a lot going on, and I'm willing to cut the administration some slack on this for a little while, but at some point you have to hold the president's feet to the fire, and I think this is the time."

Transparency advocates have been exchanging a flurry of worried emails, and are frustrated that the president has so far failed to keep such a simple promise, says Sean Moulton, director of federal-information policy for OMB Watch, an open-government advocacy group. "This was a commitment made by the administration—it was very clearly defined," Moulton says. "If they can't follow through on that, especially when it's such an easy thing to do, we start to get concerned, with so many other things they're working on, that they'll miss the easy shots."

They have good reason to be peeved. It remains the only campaign promise that the president has broken since taking office, according to the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact.com. The White House says it's just working out the kinks: "This policy will be implemented in full soon; currently we are working through implementation procedures and some initial issues with the congressional calendar," the administration said in a statement. But it's a puzzling explanation from such a technically sophisticated team. Within three weeks of the election, the transition team was already fielding thousands of comments on issues ranging from energy to healthcare on its website, Change.gov. Posting bills online is possibly the easiest task facing the new administration, and the president's team has had plenty of time to craft a plan to attend to citizens' comments after they are received.

And "soon" may not be fast enough with Congressional leaders scrambling to put the stimulus bill on the president's desk. The Sunlight Foundation on Monday called upon Obama to fulfill his pledge by posting the final stimulus bill on WhiteHouse.gov for five days before signing it. A five-day review may not sway the president's decision—at that stage, the bill will be final and he won't veto it over minor quibbles—but it will set a new standard for openness in the executive branch. The president's actions might also pressure Congress to offer the same review period in the future, so that citizens have a chance to influence legislation while it can still be revised.

Moreover, the stimulus bill is an exceedingly intricate piece of legislation—the Senate version of the bill runs 778 pages. Each day, new nuggets are uncovered in its myriad of provisions (just ask the Congressional GOP), such as the recently reported millions that will fund environmentally friendly electric vehicles. The size of the bill makes it even more crucial that it be exposed to public inquiry before the president signs it. The scrutiny could also benefit Obama politically: If the president's allies better understand the bill, then they can better deflect criticism such as the firestorm that surrounded the abandoned provision to fund contraception.

Obama could, of course, easily cast aside his promise by declaring the stimulus bill an "emergency," which would be consistent with the urgent rhetoric that he used to get it passed. But it's doubtful that five days will substantially alter the execution of the stimulus, a massive spending package that will take effect over a matter of months and years.

For all the talk of transparency during the campaign, Obama's views remain remarkably opaque: How does he see the role of ordinary citizens' input in shaping important legislation? The stimulus bill, the first weighty bill to reach the president's desk, offers a handy test case. Inviting the public to comment would send a powerful message that the administration is serious about ushering in a new era of inclusive governance.

Nicholas Ciarelli is an assistant product manager at The Daily Beast.