OPINION: Washington Examiner Editorial "For Obama Team, Transparency Means Sneaking Off to a Coffee Shop"

May 6, 2011

Many people take the promises of politicians with a grain of salt, and no wonder, since so many pledges are made solely to attract votes on Election Day, then swiftly forgotten. Still, government credibility ultimately rests on how faithfully our leaders do what they say they will do, especially on issues that go to fundamental democratic values like transparency and accountability. This is an area in which President Obama made some particularly ambitious and welcome promises during his 2008 campaign, most notably that his administration would practice an unprecedented level of transparency and that lobbyists would not be welcome in his policymaking councils.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, held a hearing Wednesday to examine how well Obama has fulfilled those promises. Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence suggesting Obama's promises of transparency and accountability were made with little if any intention of actually keeping them. Take the matter of who is visiting the White House, a key indicator of special-interest lobbyists' influence. Although Obama made much ado about releasing White House visitor logs in 2009, Stearns pointed to a Center for Public Integrity investigation showing that Obama fought their release tooth and nail:

» The new policy was adopted only after settlement of four protracted lawsuits against the government seeking such records. A federal judge repeatedly ruled that, contrary to Obama's claims, White House visitor logs are subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act.

» Even after the much-ballyhooed posting of logs on the White House website, only 1 percent of the more than 500,000 meetings held with visitors during the president's first eight months in office have been made public.

» Many of the entries that have been released do not reflect all the visitors and officials participating in the meetings.

» Approximately two-thirds of the 1 million names released to date were visitors on guided group tours who were not at the White House on official business.

» Thousands of people known to have attended meetings in the White House, including numerous lobbyists, are nowhere to be found in the logs.

Stearns' hearing included testimony from Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the conservative nonprofit that for years has effectively used the FOIA to unmask wrongdoing by officials appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents. Fitton told the subcommittee that, despite repeated federal court rulings that visitor logs are subject to release under the FOIA, the Obama administration continues to claim otherwise. He also noted that the administration has yet to respond to his organization's FOIA requests concerning thousands of Obamacare waivers issued by the Department of Health and Human Services. Fitton pointed to reports that White House officials routinely skirt disclosure requirements by meeting with lobbyists at a nearby Caribou Coffee shop, and he noted that The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney has uncovered at least 40 Obama administration "ethics waivers" that allow former lobbyists to take key policymaking jobs. In other words, Obama's transparency and accountability might just as well be translated as "smoke and mirrors."

Read the editorial online HERE.
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