The Advisory Committee on Transparency is holding a panel discussion on Transparency and the Obama Presidency from 2:00 to 3:30 pm on Monday, December 3, 2012 in room 2237 of the Rayburn House Office Building. The event will focus on the administration's efforts to fulfill President Obama's transparency agenda during his first term and explore possible next steps for his second term. Speakers and more details TBA.
How serious is the 112th Congress about transparency? The answer to that question depends on who you ask, as panelists proved at an Oct. 1 Advisory Committee on Transparency panel discussion. Though the 112th Congress received mixed reviews of its transparency record, panelists agreed some key improvements have been made and there is still room for progress.
The panel discussion, moderated by ACT Director and Sunlight Foundation Policy Counsel Daniel Schuman, made the different views on congressional transparency progress clear. Hugh Halpern, staff director of the House Committee on Rules, praised the 112th Congress and its leadership for modernizing how it operates and shares information with the public. One critical step he noted was that Congress for the first time recognizes paper and electronic documents as being equal. That means the cumbersome step of printing is eliminated, and having information available in electronic format brings it one step closer to being available online for the public. He also cited mandatory web-casting of committee events, an effort to obey the “3-day rule” requiring posting of bills for three calendar days before votes, and the launch of docs.house.gov where information is posted for public review. Halpern noted Congress is still in the process of implementing rules changes made in the 112th, and he does not see the need for many rules changes for the 113th. Halpern emphasized that the 112th Congress is open to constructive criticism, but he thinks the group can be very proud of its transparency record.
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and founder of WashingtonWatch.com, had some different thoughts on how the 112th performed in the transparency arena. The Cato Institute graded Congress on efforts to be more open, based on factors such as authoritative sourcing, availability, machine discoverability, and machine readability, and the results were not good, Harper said. The grades are a lagging indicator, Harper added, because Congress is making more data available and the transparency community has yet to sift through the data and understand it.
John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, agreed with Halpern and Harper that there has been progress in gaining access to the official work of Congress. He said docs.house.gov has been under-appreciated in terms of how much information if offers. Timestamps, for example, allow viewers to assess how long bills were available before votes, adding an accountability element to the posts. The 112th Congress' record on ethics and influence is mixed because the laws regulating campaign finance are unclear, Wonderlich said. He cited the STOCK Act as one example of an improvement that will provide new financial disclosure information to dig into, though he said it could be improved by requiring real-estate disclosures. Wonderlich also assessed how political power functions, noting that it has been disorderly for the past two years because of divided government.
During a question and answer session at the end of the panel discussion, the panelists also discussed topics ranging from why the public should care about access to Congress to what next steps should be taken toward greater transparency. Halpern, Harper and Wonderlich once again found common themes: that a transparent Congress is key to our system of government, and more steps should be taken to advance the progress that has been made so far in bringing information to the public.
The Advisory Committee on Transparency will host an event on legislative transparency on Monday, October 1 at 2:00 pm in the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203.
Over the past two years, Congress has embraced and avoided efforts to make its proceedings more open and understandable to the public. It recently unveiled a new legislative information website that will ultimately replace THOMAS, but held secret "supercommittee" meetings on reducing the budget deficit. The House of Representatives now requires legislation to be online for 3 legislative days, but earmarks have been pushed underground in both chambers. All the while, a growing community of parliamentary monitoring organizations have begun identifying standards against which legislative transparency can be measured.
We are pleased to host this panel discussion on the evolving norms and behaviors of the Congress towards transparency. The panel of experts includes Hugh Halpern, Staff Director of the House Committee on Rules; Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute and Founder of WashingtonWatch.com; and John Wonderlich, Policy Director at the Sunlight Foundation. They will explain the steps each house has taken towards openness, some of the impediments that could deter future progress, and prospects for further advances in the 113th Congress.
On August 20, the Advisory Committee on Transparency hosted a panel discussion with experts on the federal regulatory process concerning the role of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Moderated by Daniel Schuman, director of ACT and policy counsel of the Sunlight Foundation, the panel took a detailed look at how to improve and adjust OIRA’s function in order to create greater efficacy, accountability, and transparency in the regulatory process.
Curtis Copeland, a former regulatory analyst at CRS and GAO, began the conversation by providing a brief historical account of OIRA. He spoke about the expansion of OIRA’s focus from mostly approving agency data collection to performing comprehensive reviews of economically significant regulations. Copeland mentioned two concerns that made this shift controversial. First, OIRA was seen as a challenge to separation of powers – how did this extension of the White House have the authority to influence the statutory requirements of federal agencies? Second, OIRA was criticized for acting as a “black box” in which regulations were changed or impeded with no transparency.
Susan Dudley, former OIRA Administrator under George W. Bush who is currently the Director of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center, continued the discussion by describing OIRA as an office of non-partisan and dedicated civil servants that acts as a “dispassionate and analytical second opinion on agencies’ actions.” She argued that OIRA needed more staff to confront expanding responsibilities and to make up for previous reductions that reduced FTE staff from 90 to fewer than 50. Dudley also claimed that OIRA was less susceptible for special interest pressures than other agencies.
Michael Fitzpatrick, former OIRA Associate Administrator under President Obama, who recently moved to government relations at GE, agreed with Ms. Dudley’s depiction of OIRA, and asserted that the regulatory process greatly benefited from OIRA review. Fitzpatrick said that the criticism of OIRA leveraged by both sides of the political spectrum was indicative of a well functioning non-partisan agency, and also cited a need for more FTEs. He went on top argue that independent agencies should be accounted for at some level in the regulatory review process – specifically citing the Independent Agency Regulatory Analysis Act proposed by Senators Portman, Warner, and Collins.
The Director of Public Citizen, Robert Weissman, contended that the federal rulemaking process is “profoundly broken” and is, contrary to the assertions of the OIRA panelists, far more accessible to industry interests and lobbyists. He stated that OIRA meets with business interests five to six times for every single meeting with public interest groups. Weissman described OIRA as a major factor in the systemic delay of necessary regulations – specifically citing an OSHA rule regarding silica exposure that has been held up by OIRA for over eighteen months without explanation. He strongly urged OIRA to shift its role towards addressing holes in regulatory capture and promoting interagency coordination. Absent that shift, he suggested that there were many deficiencies in transparency at OIRA. Weissman also asserted that OIRA is a one-way ratchet that only weakens regulations, and never strengthens them.
The public is invited to attend a panel discussion on federal rulemaking that will focus on the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency, the event will take place on Monday, August 20 at 2:00 pm in the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203.
OIRA reviews regulations that impose more than $100 million in annual compliance costs for affected industries, and its influence can extend to other rulemakings as well. With the imminent departure of OIRA's administrator, Cass Sunstein, the time is ripe to evaluate the Obama administration's approach to rulemaking, its transparency, and how OIRA should fit into the rulemaking process.
The panel of experts includes Susan Dudley, a former OIRA administrator under President Bush; Michael Fitzpatrick, a former associate administrator under President Obama; Curtis Copeland, a former specialist with the Congressional Research Service; and Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen. The panel will discuss OIRA's role in rulemakings, its evolution, its openness, congressional oversight, and where we can go from here.
The Advisory Committee on Transparency event originally scheduled for March 12th has been postponed until further notice due to last minute scheduling difficulties. Updates will be posted here as soon as they become available. You may also email act (at) sunlightfoundation.com if you would like to receive email updates about upcoming events.
The Advisory Committee on Transparency will host an event on legislative transparency and legislative branch appropriations on Monday, March 12th at 2:00 p.m. in the Rayburn House Office Building, room 2203. This event is particular timely as the House and Senate consider how much money to appropriate for important transparency programs.
The panel of experts will focus on rules changes that impact the level of transparency in the appropriations process. The discussion will also emphasize changes in funding for legislative branch support agencies and internal congressional processes that have implications for congressional transparency and legislative capacity.
Want to receive notices of future Advisory Committee on Transparency events or get involved? Email ACT@SunlightFoundation.com. Archives and more information about the Advisory Committee is available at http://transparencycaucus.org/
The Advisory Committee on Transparency educates policymakers on transparency-related issues, problems, and solutions and shares ideas with members of the Congressional Transparency Caucus. It hosts events to discuss important and wide-ranging transparency policy issues with experts from a variety of backgrounds and develops educational publications and provides timely information to the public and members of Congress. Learn more at http://transparencycaucus.org.
Super PACs were the subject of an event hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency in January 2012. The event addressed the history of super PACs, legal issues surrounding them, and their potential effect on elections.
Eliza Newlin Carney, a staff writer for CQ Roll Call and the journalist who coined the term super PAC, got the discussion started. She argued that campaign finance transparency has been eroding for some time, sparked by increased activism from non-profit organizations that don't have to disclose their donors. She outlined three specific issues that have emerged with the rise of super PACs: FEC disclosure regulations are incomplete, super PACs can delay reporting their donors, and super PACs can use affiliated non-profits to obscure the identity of their donors.
Mimi Marziani, Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, explained how super PACs came to be. She detailed how the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision set the stage for non-coordinated independent expenditures by lifting the ban on direct corporate and union participation in elections. The subsequent Court of Appeals' Speech Now decision found that the government cannot restrict unlimited business and labor contributions for these expenditures. Together, the two decisions led to the creation of super PACs. Marziani highlighted three assumptions included in these decisions that she found troubling. First, that independent expenditures are non-corrupting. Second, that anti-coordination rules are sufficient to prevent actual coordination. Finally, that current disclosure requirements are sufficient to shine light on these new avenues for political spending.
Paul Ryan, FEC Program Director and Associate Legal Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, picked up some of the threads started by Marziani. According to Ryan, 8 of 9 Supreme Court justices endorsed the central role of disclosure for the campaign finance system. But, he argued that some significant deficits in current disclosure rules exist. It is easy for super PACs to obscure the corporate role in elections by accepting donations from non-profits that are not required to disclose their donors. Additionally, Ryan blamed dysfunction among FEC commissioners for preventing needed regulations from being instituted. He pointed out legislation, the DISCLOSE Act, which narrowly failed to pass through congress in 2010, and the SUPERPAC Act proposed by the Sunlight Foundation, that could solve some of these problems.
Allen Dickerson, Legal Director and Interim Executive Director of the Center for Competitive Politics, approached the topic with a different perspective. He argued that since super PACs already have to follow the same reporting rules as traditional PACs, more disclosure is not necessary. He then suggested that smaller donations are not particularly noteworthy and do not need to be subject to disclosure. Dickerson also took time to push against Paul Ryan's suggestion that super PACs would use non-profits to obscure their donors, calling the required process “inefficient”.
The event ended with a question and answer section that sparked an engaging discussion and pushed the panelists on a number of issues. They talked about the possibility that non-profits will be used to obscure donors, the level of coordination that is actually allowed between super PACs and candidates, and the practical effect that super PACs may have on the 2012 elections.
The Advisory Committee on Transparency will present a discussion on super PAC transparency as we move toward the 2012 elections on Monday, January 23 at 2:15 p.m. in Rayburn 2203.
Update: C-SPAN's live video of the event is available here
Super PACs have fundamentally changed the relationship between money and politics, and all too often are misunderstood. These new vehicles for political advocacy have upended traditional political alliances, infused tremendous amounts of undisclosed (or partially disclosed) money into the political system, and kicked off controversies over what our 21st century democracy should look like.
We are pleased to present the preeminent experts who will discuss what the public knows -- and should know -- about Super PACs, including the reporter who coined the term “Super PAC” and leading advocates on both sides of the transparency question. We will explore the legal limits of what can be disclosed about Super PACs, and the policy questions around what the public has a right to know.
Eliza Newlin Carney: Staff Writer for CQ Roll Call covering the issues of lobbying and influence
Allen Dickerson: Legal Director and Interim Executive Director of the Center for Competitive Politics
Mimi Marziani: Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law
Paul Ryan: FEC Program Director and Associate Legal Counsel at the Campaign Legal Center
Daniel Schuman: Policy Counsel at the Sunlight Foundation and Director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency
For the full biographies of our speakers, please click here. You may also visit the event page for additional information about this event.
Last Thursday the Congessional Transparency Caucus, co-chaired by Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Mike Quigley (D-IL), held a roundtable conversation to discuss important transparency initiatives. Topics included lobbying oversight, access to Congressional documents and CRS reports, the DATA Act, the debt and deficit, the Super Committee, among other things. While the event was cut short by floor votes, it still covered a lot of ground, including an opportunity for the public to ask questions of the Representatives.
The Advisory Committee on Transparency is a private-sector organization and complies with all House and Senate rules. It is separate and distinct from the Congressional Transparency Caucus, a Congressional Member Organization. The Advisory Committee on Transparency is a project of the Sunlight Foundation.