April 04, 2011

Transparency Funds on the Chopping Block

By Anne Weismann

Transparency Funding CutsWith transparency programs facing virtual elimination from proposed budget cuts – The Sunlight Foundation’s so-called "Budget Technopocalypse" – there is good cause to be concerned about what, if any, transparency legacy the Obama administration will leave behind. While CREW agrees with Sunlight that transparency efforts merit ongoing funding, we question the utility of some of the information the government has posted on-line. Some data – particularly related to government spending – is clearly important, but a quick perusal of reveals other information that can hardly be considered “high value.”  

The underlying problem, however, is more than just a debate over the quality of data currently on-line. The vulnerability to budget cuts highlights a major limitation of the administration’s transparency efforts: they are not backed up by legislative changes. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) remains one of the most effective tools for the public to access government information, something the president recognized in his day-one memo mandating disclosure under that statute. But rather than proposing changes to the FOIA, the administration has relied on precatory policies that are ignored with impunity.  
Just last week, Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) chief FOIA officer admitted in testimony before the House Oversight Committee that DHS has a systemic and long-term problem with overusing FOIA’s Exemption 5. This has continued despite Attorney General Eric Holder’s March 2010 FOIA memo identifying Exemption 5 as an area where discretionary releases are most appropriate. CREW’s experience suggests DHS is not alone and that despite the president’s and attorney general’s pleas for more discretionary releases, many agencies continue to withhold to avoid embarrassment or worse.

The squabble over the $32 million proposed cuts in the e-government funds also highlights an even larger problem: Congress’ refusal to consider budget cuts where they can make the most difference. The money saved by cutting transparency funding is insignificant in light of the depth of our fiscal crisis. Without cutting defense and entitlement spending and/or raising taxes, it is impossible to significantly impact the budget and return the nation to fiscal health.

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