The House Energy and Commerce Committee today released a report entitled "Promises Made, Promises Broken: The Obama Administration's Disappointing Transparency Track Record," which chronicles how the Obama administration has failed to fulfill its widely promoted pledges of transparency. Following White House denial of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for visitor logs, filed by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and msnbc.com, CREW filed lawsuits to seek release of the records. In September 2009 the White House chose to settle with CREW and institute a "voluntary" visitors log policy. In announcing the new policy on September 4, 2009, President Obama declared, "We will achieve our goal of making this administration the most open and transparent administration in history..."
The administration's actions, however, have failed to live up to the president's rhetoric. The committee's analysis focuses primarily on the administration's level of transparency related to two investigations: the government's actions surrounding the integrated-services rule waiver and interference dispute between LightSquared and GPS, and the White House's secretive negotiations with powerful health care lobbying interests during formulation of the health care law. While the policy questions at stake related to broadband deployment and health care reform have little in common, a clear pattern emerged showing tactics consistently used by this administration to conceal its deliberations from the public.
"What we have learned from our many investigations is that, time and again, the Obama administration's actions have failed to match the president's lofty rhetoric on transparency," said Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns (R-FL.) "From its closed door negotiations on Obamacare to its offline and off campus meetings discussing LightSquared's waiver, the administration's record is littered with broken promises."
The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee first convened a hearing last year on "White House Transparency, Visitor Logs, and Lobbyists," which revealed some of the steps White House officials have taken to avoid public scrutiny.
One of the most glaring examples of the administration's efforts to withhold information from the public was discovered as part of the committee's investigation into the interference dispute between LightSquared and the GPS community. A series of previously unreleased emails between Jeff Smith, Senior Advisor to the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and Jim Kirkland, Vice President and General Counsel of Trimble Navigation, show the great lengths certain administration officials have gone to keep names off the visitors' logs and information out of the public record. When trying to finalize a meeting during one of Kirkland's visits to Washington, D.C., Smith wrote:
"Jim -- coffee at Caribou Coffee -- across the corner from the WH -- would work at 11:30 a.m. on Friday plus getting you through the new WH security rules these days almost takes an act of Congress almost (and you know how well that's going these days) plus you'd appear on an official WH Visitor List which is maybe not want [sic] you want at this stage "
In a later email exchange to coordinate a meeting between Kirkland and former OSTP Chief of Staff Jim Kohlenberger, Smith explicitly directed them to keep their communications off official channels, choosing to test the boundaries of the Presidential Records Act. He said, "For both of you -- on this or any other related subject or policy matter, please continue to communicate with me only on my personal email "
Another case study in the administration's opacity is the findings of the committee's investigation into the closed-door negotiations between the administration and health care stakeholders prior to passage of the president's health care law. Among those deals were billions of dollars in policy concessions in exchange for millions of dollars to advertise public support for the president's health care bill. In 2008, then-Senator Obama promised that all health-care negotiations would take place on C-SPAN. However, the committee's findings contradict the president's rhetoric on transparency.
Documents submitted to the committee by several health industry organizations and labor unions show that these groups were in constant communication with the White House during the formulation of Obamacare. However, a public record for a majority of these meetings has not been released; moreover, for certain records selectively chosen for disclosure as part of the White House visitors' logs, the listings are inaccurate or incomplete.
The report concludes, "The White House staff's closed-door negotiations on PPACA and offline discussions related to LightSquared demonstrate that the Obama administration's stated goals of openness and transparency are being intentionally subverted by some of the very same officials who created and are now tasked with implementing the White House transparency policies. By refusing the wholesale release of records prior to September 15, 2009, encouraging off-site meetings immune from the visitors' log requirement, conducting major policy negotiations over personal email accounts, and declining to respond to questions from Congress, the White House has failed to deliver on its promise of transparency to the American public."