Transparency in Government Act Looks to Change Status Quo
by Leslie Haymon, 3/14/2014
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) introduced a bill today that would take a number of innovative steps toward greater government transparency. The Transparency in Government Act would bring greater openness to the federal government through a number of pioneering proposals that harness 21st century technology and address critical gaps in each of the three branches.
The bill would require greater and easier access to data that is already collected but not published online or otherwise easily accessible. For example, the bill includes several provisions to increase the transparency of federal spending, including expanding the data available on USAspending.gov to include information about leases and congressional earmarks. One provision would establish an online database to collect and publish data on lobbying by federal contractors. Improved access to this data would better provide the public with information about efforts by grantees and contractors to influence future spending.
The bill also seeks to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It would require agencies to post information released under FOIA requests for public access online, which would increase transparency and reduce duplicative requests. Another portion of the bill would require agencies to participate in the multi-agency FOIAonline portal, which allows members of the public to submit and track FOIA requests to agencies from a single site. These provisions are similar to those contained in the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014 (H.R. 1211), which the House passed in February.
Furthermore, the bill seeks to open the door to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The office has long been considered a “black box” in the rulemaking process, where important public safeguards can get stuck for months or years under “review” without a public explanation for the delay or any estimate of when the rule will move forward. When rules finally do emerge from the office, it is difficult or impossible to determine how OIRA may have changed them.
The bill would require OIRA to post online any draft rules submitted to the office for review, along with post-review drafts. OIRA would also have to summarize any substantive changes it made to those rules. Moreover, the bill provides much-needed transparency of the review process by requiring the office to disclose communications about rules under review between it and agencies, other White House offices, and outside parties.
Another important provision requires that agency and White House visitor logs be released. The section allows for reasonable redaction of personal information while balancing the legitimate needs of the public to know who is meeting with government officials. The bill would codify the policy inaugurated by the Obama administration and expand it to federal agencies.
Additionally, the bill would improve access to information about public officials’ ethics. It would close a loophole in the STOCK Act to ensure that the financial disclosures filed by the highest echelons of our federal judiciary are publicly accessible online. Although these disclosures have been filed for decades and the STOCK Act required that key executive and legislative branch filings be posted online, judicial filings remain difficult to access.
Finally, the legislation requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to audit the law’s provisions to ensure agencies comply.
We believe that this bill contains several inventive ideas and commonsense reforms and deserves a full examination by Congress. Many of these proposals close loopholes that have hampered transparency and shore up open government principles that form the bedrock of an accountable government. (Notably, Quigley co-chairs the Congressional Transparency Caucus.) The Transparency in Government Act affirms the commitment our government has to being open and accountable to the citizens it serves.