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Three Months and Eleven Bills In, Obama Falls Short of His Five-Day Transparency Pledge

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, April 15 2009

A Flagging Obama Transparency Effort (Cato @ Liberty)Of the eleven bills that Barack Obama has signed in his three months as president, six have been posted to WhiteHouse.gov to allow the public a chance to review the bill and offer comments. Only one bill -- extending the deadline for the transition to digital television -- was up online for at least five days. Those are the findings of the Cato Institute's Jim Harper, who is keeping a chart of which bills fulfill the letter of Obama's pledge on legislative transparency.

During the campaign, Obama repeatedly pledged that, as president, he would "not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days." Obama called the commitment, "Sunlight Before Signing." Upon taking office, the five-day transparency pledge was reiterated in the very first blog post on WhiteHouse.gov.

Some of the legislation signed into law by Obama thus far has been relatively trivial, like a bill renaming a Springfield, Illinois post office in honor of World War II veteran Colonel John H. Wilson, Jr. But others have had significant public policy implications, like the multi-billion dollar stimulus package or the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Harper notes that one bill, the Federal Aviation Administration Extension Act was actually signed seven days after presentment by Congress to Obama, but that bill was never posted in any fashion to the White House website.

Harper notes that in several cases, Congress presented Obama bills just shortly before the programs they covered were due to expire, such as the extension of programs under the Small Business Act. Of course, Congress's last minute legislating is nothing new, and was the status quo under which the Obama pledge was made.

But at least one critic thinks that the five-day transparency pledge is well intentioned but misguided. In the Open House Project discussion group, author Clay Shirky has argued that once bills make it to the President's desk, the curtain has closed on the negotiation phase of the legislative process. A five-day public vetting, he writes, "isn't actually very useful because of the 'up or down' nature of the interaction between POTUS and the proposal. Public involvement at that point is an invitation to all kinds of system gaming."

Other transparency advocates argue that a period of public viewing could have a useful preemptive effect. Congress -- knowing that the American people would have a full work week to vet their handiwork -- might proceed with more caution during the last, often frenzied, stages of legislation making, a period in which unseemly provisions or unwise earmarked projects can find their way into bills.