Jon Stewart Takes on President Obama’s Transparency

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April 5, 2011; Source: Rolling Stone | The Obama Administration hasn’t quite lived up to its high profile commitment to maximum government transparency, a fact that hasn’t passed by Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart without notice.

As put by Stewart, “When you don’t live in the White House, sunlight is the best disinfectant. When you live in the White House, disinfectant . . . stings!”

Did you know that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistle blowers in its two years in office than the government attacked in the previous 40? How about White House staff sidling up to lobbyists across the street in order to sidestep disclosure of lobbyist meetings at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.? Or keeping secret an event where the President was scheduled to receive an award on transparency (the actual event was closed to the press), surprising and baffling the groups that were participating in the award ceremony?

The problem isn’t just the skittishness of the White House about transparency. In Congress, House Republicans have proposed slashing the budget for electronic government activities – the “e-government fund” – from the $35 million requested by the White House to $2 million in the latest of the FY2011 continuing resolution battles. (The Senate would only cut the e-gov budget to $20 million.)

If anything like that goes through, major data sites will be shut down. The White House says it needs $4 million for (a searchable website of federal grants, loans, and contracts by source, year, and recipients) alone. With the House proposal, the site (hosting 379,939 high-value, machine-readable government data sets) and (tracking federal technology investments) would also be shut.

This is more than a budget issue. It is a government culture question. For example, the White House has instructed federal agencies not to talk about functions that would or would not be maintained during a budget shutdown. Few agencies have responded to FOIA requests for shutdown information, explaining that “they were told to clear any response with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.”

The White House plan to keep alive is a “pass-the-hat approach”. That’s what openness and transparency in government has come down to? Without even a Congressional hearing about this penny-foolish/pound-foolish cut? As a tool for nonprofit advocates that want to increase the efficiency of government, these data sites are crucially important tools, providing the information needed to spot waste, redundancy, excesses, and shortfalls.—Rick Cohen