Sunlight Foundation Curses the Darkness, Rebukes the White House

by Matthew L. Schafer

On Tuesday, the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for increased government transparency through the use of the Internet, expressed concerns and frustrations with the lack of transparency at the White House.  On the Foundation’s blog, Executive Director Ellen Miller attacked the Obama administration’s musical chairs inside its Domestic Policy Counsel, a lack of progress at, and the failure to pass the DISCLOSE Act.

“After making some dramatic statements and issuing important directives, and taking some very positive initial first steps, the White House has already fallen short on delivery of the things we have been promised,” Miller wrote.

The recent shuffle of advisors has Miller especially unhappy.  With the leave of former ethics czar Norman Eisen, also known as “Mr. No” for his strict adherence to ethics rules and keeping others in the administration from operating outside those rules, Miller questions the administration’s move to not appoint a full-time replacement for the post.  Eisen, the contact at the White House for The Sunlight Foundation, will be moving on to a post as Ambassador to the Czech Republic.

“We have just lost an important fight about how the Administration will handle the duties of ‘ethics czar’ post Norm Eisen’s tenure,” Miller wrote.  “It certainly looks like the White House’s commitment to a more transparent government is teetering.”

Upon Eisen’s exit, the Obama administration will give White House Counsel Bob Bauer broad oversight of ethics and transparency, while Bauer will remain in his post White House Counsel.  Bauer was criticized by the Sunlight Foundation for not playing a hard line when it comes to transparency.  The Foundation cites a 2008 post by Bauer where he concludes that disclosure has its “downsides.”  While the Foundation is less than pleased with the recent shakeup, lobbyists are celebrating the departure of Eisen.

“[Eisen’s departure is] the biggest lobbying success we’ve had all year,” Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta told the New York Times.

The Sunlight Foundation’s rebuke of the president is not entirely undue as many interest groups and media organizations have cited recent failures in transparency.  Indeed, the administration has faced criticism for new rules for press access at the Pentagon, a lack of transparency at the Gulf oil spill, closed-door meetings at the Federal Communications Commission, breaking his promise on health care legislation transparency, and the discovery by the AP that political operatives handling Freedom of Information requests as opposed to lifelong civil servants.  The lack of transparency by agencies under the administration’s purview comes despite President Obama’s repeated assertions that his administration is committed to transparency.

“My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use,” Obama wrote.  “Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.”

The Sunlight Foundation had an uphill battle in front of it even before the recent reorganization of the ethics team.  The Foundation and its staff of about thirty people is battling for transparency of not only government but of a lobbying industry that raked in about $3.5 billion in 2009.  Despite the Foundation’s criticisms ethics team shake up, Bauer told The Hill that the agreement will actually be better for transparency.

“[The new structure will] not only to hold administration officials to their ethics obligations, but to promote government openness, whistleblower protections, campaign finance reform and to ensure that government serves the American people, not the special interests,” Bauer said.

Special thanks to “shehal” at Flickr for lead image.

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About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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