April 10, 2009

Sunlight before Signing: A Review

While campaigning, President Obama made a pledge:

Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them. As president, Obama will not sign any non-emergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House website for five days.

And again, on the campaign trail:

When there is a bill that ends up on my desk as a president, you the public will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it, so that you know what your government’s doing.

And how well has President Obama held up that pledge?

Of the eleven bills President Obama has signed, only six have been posted on Whitehouse.gov. None have been posted for a full five days after presentment from Congress.

I've discussed Obama's breaking of that campaign pledge before. Let's take a look back at the eleven pieces of legislation he has signed and how well (or not) he followed his own disclosure rules.

Of all of the bills, only the DTV Delay Act came close to meeting the "sunlight before signing" rules. It was "cleared for presentment" on February 4th and signed February 11th. It was actually presented to the President on February 9th. So, Obama gets the credit for waiting five days, although the clock should have started on February 9th to follow the spirit of his campaign pledge.

Four times, a bill was posted online while it was still in Congress. While this might meet the five days in some respects, doing this doesn't allow for visitors to see last minute additions.

Two bills were waited on for five days, but for some reason were not posted on whitehouse.gov, thereby breaking the campaign pledge.

Why is the President not following his pledge and giving the people a chance to review legislation before he signs it? The White House doesn't even seem to have a system for accomplishing it. Do they announce it via their blog, a press release, or a briefing? Should the bill be posted in PDF, a webpage, or in plain text? Should it be hosted on Congress' website or on the White House's website?

Another problem is that transparency is not something a lot of people focus on. Much like campaign finance reform, only those who actively follow it are disappointed when it is broken.

While the administration has been quite disappointing thus far, let's hope they get their act together. Just don't hold your breath.