Obama doing little for open government

Freedom New Mexico

When Barack Obama became president last year, he expressed a commitment to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.” On Tuesday, in the middle of Sunshine Week, highlighting the public’s right to know what its government is doing, Obama renewed his commitment to making his administration “the most open and transparent ever.”

Sadly, the administration’s first year hasn’t shown much movement toward that goal. His promise remains unfulfilled.

The promise — part of his overall campaign theme of change — brought hope to many. After all, as a senator Obama was a key supporter of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. The day after his inauguration he signed several memos promoting open government with great fanfare, citing the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy. The memos called for new guidelines for complying with the Freedom of Information Act and the preparation of an Open Government Directive. That directive was issued in December.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday echoed Obama’s theme of last year, declaring that this administration is so much better than its predecessor’s.

“I’m pleased to report that the disturbing 2008 trend — a reduction in this department’s rate of disclosures — has been completely reversed,” Holder declared.

In reality, however, the Bush White House was more open. While progress has been made in some areas — some agencies are posting more information on the Internet, making formal requests less necessary, compliance with FOIA requests has taken a turn for the worse.

The Associated Press reports that in the past fiscal year, federal agencies received 444,924 requests for information under the FOIA. They rejected most requests, citing exemptions at least 466,872 times (more than one exemption was cited in several of the denials). In contrast, in the 2008 fiscal year the agencies invoked exemptions 312,683 times — 154,189 fewer times — even though they received 493,610 requests — 48,686 more than the recently ended fiscal year.

Obama’s failure to keep some promises has been well documented. He pledged that pending legislation would be posted on the Internet for at least five days so public comment could be taken; that hasn’t happened. After promising a completely open process regarding his ongoing efforts to nationalize the country’s health care, Democratic Party officials met in secret, denying access to both Republican Party lawmakers and the public.

The National Security Archive, an open-government project at George Washington University, each year tests federal agencies by issuing open records requests and assessing their compliance. The archive gives the Obama administration a negative grade so far. If the White House is serious about maintaining an open government, it “has not conquered the challenge of communicating and enforcing that message throughout the Executive Branch,” the NSA report states.

Certainly, the federal government is a massive juggernaut that can’t overcome its own inertia overnight. However, if President Obama is serious about open government, he needs to set a better example.