White House Touts New Transparency Rules, As Watchdogs Decry Administration’s Poor FOIA Responses

April 7, 2010 - 6:54 PM
The White House on Wednesday touted new rules as another "historic milestone" in government transparency, even as transparency advocates criticized the Obama administration for its poor response in providing public records to taxpayers.

President Barack Obama pauses in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April 6, 2010, during an Easter Prayer Breakfast with Christian leaders from around the country. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(CNSNews.com) – The White House on Wednesday touted new rules as another “historic milestone” in government transparency, even as transparency advocates criticized the Obama administration for its poor response in providing public records to taxpayers.
 
Federal departments and agencies – at the direction of the White House – released their “Open Government Plans” Wednesday, including data sets, many of which seem to promote President Obama’s policies.
 
These include: community health data from the Department of Health and Human Services with information on Medicare and Medicaid; more than 60 clean energy resources available from the Department of Energy; a forum for public recommendations to improve services from the Department of Veterans Affairs; and data about homelessness from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
 
Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, called the initiatives the “latest and we think, historic milestone in taking the president’s directive to make this the most open and transparent government in history.”
 
Eisen, during a conference call with reporters, stressed that President Obama already has posted the White House visitor logs online, as well as financial disclosure information on White House staff and their salaries.
 
However, the Obama administration has been worse than the Bush administration in complying with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group that has more than 300 pending FOIA lawsuits with the federal government.
 
“To say you’re being transparent by putting junk out that the government produces on a daily basis is disingenuous when they withhold tens of thousands of pages of politically sensitive material,” Fitton told CNSNews.com.
 
In January, the Federal Housing Finance Agency told Judicial Watch that documents from government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac “are private corporate documents. They are not ‘agency records’ subject to disclosure by under FOIA.”
 
Fitton further said that the Obama administration’s Treasury Department has been a “black hole for basic information requests on various government bailouts.”
 
Also, last month an analysis from the Associated Press found that the Obama administration withheld government documents from taxpayers more often than the Bush administration even though FOIA requests declined during Obama’s first year in office.
 
The AP’s review of 17 major federal agencies found that nearly all of FOIAs nine exemptions were used to withhold information from the public during fiscal year 2009.
 
Agencies cited exemptions at least 466,872 times last year compared with 312,683 times the previous year, when Bush was president, the AP review found. During that same time, the number of information requests declined by about 11 percent, from 493,610 requests in fiscal 2008 to 444,924 in 2009.
 
Eisen said there was a presidential “memorandum to reform the government’s FOIA system that we are starting to see positive results on and adopted a policy of disclosing vast amounts of government information.”
 
Eisen cited during the conference call with reporters that four independent “good government groups” gave the administration a grade of A for its first year on transparency.
 
These organizations – Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG – are all left-leaning. A joint report from these groups in January said, “The cumulative effect of the administration’s actions has been to adopt the strongest and most comprehensive lobbying, ethics and transparency rules and policies ever established by an administration to govern its own activities.”