In This Issue: [click on the link to go to the corresponding section]
In response to a suit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a federal judge ruled that White House visitor Logs are not subject to the presidential communications privilege and must be disclosed. The judge ordered the Secret Service to process CREW’s request for the records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), finding that hiding the identities of those who visit the White House from the public undermines the FOIA’s goal of fostering openness and accountability in government. Additionally, the judge declared that the Secret Service had unlawfully destroyed public records by, at the White House’s request, deleting copies of the entry and exit logs after transferring the files to the White House.
In 2001, the National Security Archive initiated legal proceedings to force the government to recover the transcripts of phone conversations secretly taped by Henry Kissinger, and then used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the declassification of most of them. Kissinger took the transcripts with him when he left office in January 1977, claiming they were "private papers." After a three-year project to catalogue and index the transcripts, which total over 30,000 pages, this on-line collection was recently published by the Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest).
In time for the start of a new Congress and a new administration, GovTrack announced numerous updates to the site. In addition to a total appearance overhaul, the site now features, among other improvements, permanent links to sections of bills, pop-up bubbles to show a bill in the context of the U.S. Code it modifies, and the ability to embed a particular paragraph of a bill on your website with a widget. The site also gives users the ability to compare Members’ voting records.
The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) had added more tools to make it easier for data-users to work with the organization’s vast store of campaign finance and lobbying data. For users less well-versed in using data, CRP also offers widgets tracking money spent and donated to federal candidates that can be easily embedded on a website or blog.
On January 9th, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) guided Congressional staffers through the maze of congressional rules at a workshop intended to help them avoid the greatest ethical and legal pitfalls and avoid the scrutiny of ethics watchdogs, or the media.
On January 7th, the House of Representatives passed legislation to improve access to presidential records and to increase transparency at presidential libraries. The first bill passed by the 111th Congress, H.R. 35, the Presidential Records Amendments Act revokes President Bush’s Executive Order (EO) 13233, establish a deadline for review of records, limit the authority of former presidents to withhold presidential records, require the president to make privilege claims personally, and eliminate executive privilege claims for vice presidents. An identical bill was passed overwhelmingly by the House during the 110th Congress. It is unclear when the Senate will take up the legislation, but it is unlikely that it will be sent to the President desk to be signed into law before January 20th to avoid President Bush’s veto threat.
Shortly after passing H.R. 35, the House also approved H.R. 36, the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act, a bill to require organizations fundraising for Presidential libraries to disclose their donations while the president is in office and during the period before the federal government has taken possession of the library. The bill is identical to a bill passed by the House during the 110th Congress; the Senate passed similar legislation during the 110th Congress, with additional reporting requirements for presidential libraries already taken over by the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA).
The new Congress began the 111th session of Congress by adopting a rules package retaining the more stringent requirements put in place by the last session of Congress and adding the additional requirement that job negotiation notices made by senior staff and Members be publicly available. During the 111th Congress, Members must also publicly disclose all earmark request, according to a policy laid out by the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee. On the whole, open government advocates welcomed the changes, but stressed that many additional changes could be made to make Congress more open and transparent. For example, the earmark rules only require Members to make the requests available on individual websites, meaning that the public must visit over 435 websites to find out what local projects Members of Congress think deserve taxpayer funds.
Patrice McDermott, Director of OpenTheGovernment.org and Jason Mercier, Director of the Center for Government Reform of the Washington Policy Center in Seattle had an editorial published in the DC Examiner and the Pioneer Press. In the piece, McDermott and Mercier urge President-Elect Obama to take advantage of modern interactive technologies to make government more transparent and restore public confidence in the government.
In late December, OpenTheGovernment.org released Managing the Public’s Records for Accountability and History. The report, based on the efforts of a panel of current and former high-level government employees and experts from the non-profit and archival communities, makes recommendations to the 111th Congress and the new Administration for improving the government’s electric record keeping. The report has been endorsed by several coalition members and submitted to President-Elect Obama’s transition team via Change.gov. Using Change.gov’s Seat at the Table feature, you can view all materials that have been submitted for the President-Elect’s consideration, and leave your comments about the proposals.