Before entering office, President Obama promised the most open and ethical administration ever. Now, two and a half years later, it appears that the administration is struggling to maintain this high standard.
Certainly, President Obama isn't the first to fall short of campaign promises to clean up Washington. Democrats fumed for years that Vice President Dick Cheney would not release details about meetings he held with energy company executives. However, I think we've reached a stage in this presidency where the earlier promises of transparency have almost wholly evaporated under the impulse of political self-preservation.
President Obama wants another four years in office. He's already started up his campaign visiting critical battleground states in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic. He is once again setting records for fundraising. While transparency may have been a priority two years ago, now the priorities are re-election and protecting the President from any of the failings of his administration.
Early on there were signs that transparency was more of a buzzword than a policy. In his first year in office, President Obama directed federal departments to reduce the number of cases where they used the "deliberative process" exemption to deny a Freedom of Information Act request. While most government documents are subject to FOIA, those that describe the decision-making process are exempt.
In the last year of the George W. Bush administration, the exemption was cited 47,395 times. However, in 2009 the Obama administration used it 70,779 times. When a FOIA request is denied, an applicant can go to court to force the government's hand. In 2010, the number of FOIA lawsuits filed to reveal information increased by 27 percent.
The statistics don't reflect well on the transparency agenda, and some of the individual cases look even worse. As Chairman of the Health Subcommittee, I've been working with my colleagues to investigate the CLASS program contained in last year's health care law.
At the time of the bill's passage, it was widely known that the CLASS long-term care insurance program was not feasible. In fact, a prominent Democrat dubbed it a "Ponzi scheme." After $15 million spent on staff and resources, the Department of Health and Human Services finally admitted what had been widely known for a year and a half--there was no way CLASS could ever be solvent. My colleagues and I have repeatedly asked Secretary Sebelius for HHS information on the program and for her to explain her own conflicting statements about CLASS. We've heard little in response.
When the President's healthcare law was being pushed through Congress, word on the street was that hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, had a choice: Either they were at the (negotiating) table, or they would be on the menu. The Energy and Commerce Committee has tried repeatedly to find out exactly what happened in these negotiations, but the White House is stonewalling.
The administration has been fighting one particular FOIA request for Secret Service visitor logs. Starting in September 2009, the White House said that it would voluntarily release names of White House visitors. However, most of the critical meetings to construct the health care bill were held in the spring and summer.
We can't forget that the President promised on the campaign trail that all the health care negotiations would be televised on C-SPAN. What ended up on the cable channel was one highly scripted event and another meeting with legislators that was less a negotiation than a debate.
At every turn of the investigation into the failed solar company Solyndra, the administration has stonewalled investigators. This week, they barred a Department of Energy lawyer from giving a transcribed interview to the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The investigation into the botched Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fireman's Fast and Furious investigation has been even more frustrating. Attorney General Eric Holder testified at a hearing that he had little prior knowledge of the gun-selling scheme. However, it appears that his briefing materials contain multiple references to the operation.
The evidence is piling up. Transparency is out and self-preservation is in. Perhaps it should be no surprise, but it is disappointing just the same.