The Sky is Not Falling on Obama Administration Transparency

The right-to-know community has raised several concerns in recent weeks about President Obama’s commitment to openness.  While I would agree that some criticism is warranted, I feel that we need to be cautious not to over-react to early missteps. The main concerns have largely been focused on the following issues:

  • The administration has not posted bills online for public comment five days before signing, despite a campaign promise to do so. The Lilly Ledbetter Act and State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation were signed without the waiting period.
  • Obama still has yet to appoint a Chief Technology Officer (CTO).  
  • DOJ has continued the Bush administration’s application of the state secrets privilege.

First, it is important to realize that the administration’s technology efforts have been saddled with outdated and incompatible software from the previous occupants of the White House.  Second, the Ledbetter and SCHIP legislation were strongly supported and it made little sense to delay the signing until the problems were fixed.  The five-day review period was not among any of the transparency recommendations these groups, including OMB Watch, submitted to the incoming administration.  Thus, the administration’s promise is already a step above and beyond what we asked for.  The administration further addressed this issue in a blog post last week citing procedural questions and the Congressional calendar as obstacles that still need to be addressed.

The CTO position is a new one, with responsibilities that are not clearly defined, despite a recent CRS report. The head positions at both Health and Human Services and Commerce departments, Cabinet-level posts, are also vacant.  We should recall how many months it took President Clinton to get his ducks in a row.  Carter, Nixon, and Reagan didn’t make a single appointment until the December after their elections.  

The early use of state secrets privilege is worrisome, but there is little reason to immediately assume this action is a declaration of the Obama administration’s long term position.  It is not unreasonable to maintain a legal strategy in an ongoing court case until the issue can be properly assessed.  That will take time.  And while I continue to hope the Obama administration will temper its use of state secrets, I agree that legislation is needed to limit the scope and application of the privilege.

Let’s not become Chicken Little here and cry that Obama’s commitment to transparency is falling solely because of a few early difficulties.  In many ways Obama is already ahead of previous administrations, including on transparency.

Find Roger on Twitter. Image by Flickr user Jim Linwood used under a Creative Commons license.

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