The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 6, 2013

Our View: Obama falls short on transparency

The Free Press

— When then-presidential candidate Barack Obama ran on a promise to reform the way the federal government works, voters were pleased. It was a promise of a less secretive, more transparent government that we all thought was needed. President Obama's record of compliance, however, has disappointed watchdog groups on both the left and the right.

Opaqueness persists on several fronts. But perhaps most disappointing of all is Obama's failure to shine a brighter light on political donations and to curtail the influence of "big money." Late last month Obama for America was relaunched as Organizing for Action, a tax-exempt organization that is under no obligation to reveal any information about its donors.

Obama has spoken out loudly against secretive Republican special interest groups and he railed against the Citizens United court decision that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums on campaigns. Organizing for Action, however, is modeled along those same lines. Whereas organizers of the nonprofit say they will disclose donor information, they are not obligated to do so.

Organizing for Action will take corporate donations, a reversal from Obama's earlier commitment to limit the influence of special interests. Yet it says it will not take money from lobbyists and other political action committees, prompting Mary Boyle of Common Cause to remark, "It's ironic and puzzling that a grassroots organization with a public interest agenda is going to take unlimited corporate money. It doesn't square."

Conservatives are charging Obama with hypocrisy. Others believe politics has won out over righteousness. "Their practical decision is to pick the money that brings them power over any kind of principled stands," said John Wonderlich, policy director of the nonpartisan transparency group Sunlight Foundation.

But the transparency questions don't stop there. Since Obama issued a memo on his first day in office telling federal agencies that "in the face of doubt, openness prevails" on issues regarding the Freedom of Information Act, several news organizations have reported that most agencies still do not comply, and The White House has largely ignored enforcement.

A government audit in December showed 62 of 99 federal agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations, and 56 agencies haven't updated their regulations since passage of the Open Government Act of 2007. Under Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department has, in fact, provided defense for all agencies withholding information from the American public.

In September, a Bloomberg investigation reported that only eight of 57 agencies complied with documents within the guidelines of the Act. Bloomberg also found there were 720 FOIA-related complaints filed in district courts in the last two years of Obama's first term, a 28 percent rise from the last two years of the Bush administration.

Thus far into the second Obama term, there is little public outrage over this administration's inability to match its lofty transparency rhetoric with results. But we should all feel the disappointment. Obama set himself up to usher in an era of more open government, but he hasn't followed through.