Continuity, consistency and courtroom cameras are the three-pronged focus for the congressional Transparency Caucus this session.
Reps. Michael Quigley (D-Il.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said during the caucus’ first meeting for the 115th Congress that recent public backlash to missteps in archiving information during the presidential transition is fueling their efforts to improve government transparency.
“The reality is we captured anything that the Obama administration did in their last days, while we captured nothing with any regularity, specificity or accountability for anything before noon on Jan. 20,” Issa said during the Feb. 1 meeting on Capitol Hill. “Going through this transition and looking at a well-meaning team of the incoming Trump administration makes you realize something, which is we don’t have a plan to capture perhaps the most important part of the deliberative process, which is how does this wonderful, almost unique succession of transfers occur. What’s right about it, what’s wrong about it, and how does the next administration capture, if you will, the transfer of power in a way that improves on it?”
Quigley said it was “discouraging” to learn the federal government didn’t have a formal archiving process for dot-gov websites during the change in administrations.
“This poses a particular concern to things like vital scientific research and data, that may not align with different views,” Quigley said. “We saw what happened in the first week of the new Congress and how the reaction from the public changes things so dramatically as it involved ethics and transparency. I think that comes from the public pushing and from entities and groups [like the Sunlight Foundation] that are going to make a big difference as we go forward. Thanks again to public backlash, it appears the new administration is somewhat walking back from the idea to scrub certain data related to things like climate change.”
In late November, OGE Director Walter Shaub spoke publicly about his concern for President Donald Trump divesting from his business conflicts of interest. The agency also tweeted at Trump, which Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said “blurred the lines” between PR and official ethics guidance.
Republicans eventually backtracked on their efforts, but the attempt caught the eye of the public.
A search through the OGE’s Freedom of Information Act requests show that between Oct.1 [the start of fiscal 2017] and Nov. 30 only 15 FOIA requests were submitted.
The end of November and early December was the timeframe during which Shaub and OGE engaged in the conflicts of interest talk, and by the end of December more than 50 FOIA requests were submitted to OGE’s office.
In January, OGE’s FOIA office collected 94 requests. That’s compared to the total 84 requests received in 2016, the 70 requests in 2015, and 74 in 2009, which was also a transition year.
“It’s very hard to lead without the public’s trust, because they’re constantly questioning what we’re doing,” Quigley said. “There’s obviously value in transparency in the issues we work on like data for its own sake. Government just operates better that way. But we have to have on all of our agendas first and foremost, the recognition that we don’t have the public’s trust.”
It’s hard enough to make decisions with that trust, Quigley continued, and it’s up to lawmakers to do everything they can to make sure there’s transparency and accountability in the decisions that are made.
“So while they may disagree with these choices we have to make, tough as they are, they at least know that they’re being made for sound reasons and not for something they can’t see, because that cynicism and that skepticism will be the death of us all,” Quigley said.
As part of the overarching issue of transparency, Issa and Quigley said they would be looking at evening out transparency among the three branches of government.
Quigley pointed out that the Supreme Court can overturn legislation passed by Congress and the President, but it’s not possible to watch the arguments on camera.
“It’s just absolutely ridiculous,” Quigley said. “I have genuine concerns that the new administration will be at times very, very difficult about this. I have concerns that not just transparency issues, but a respect for other branches is going to be a real challenge, particularly the courts. I’m sure there will be something in the next week or so that will reflect that.”
In the meantime, Quigley said, his hope is that there will be cooperation and assistance as the new Congress moves forward, because “there’s a lot of other issues we need to get to on transparency.”
Issa pointed out that there is some level of transparency in Congress and in the executive branch — and he admitted that there is an argument about having more — but in the judicial branch “you don’t even get to find out that a judge in a circuit has committed some act for which the circuit has decided to take cases away from them, or even begin a process and ultimately that information is withheld from Congress in many cases unless it is otherwise publicly available, so even the possibility of impeachment doesn’t occur until or unless these acts become public.”
There are no cameras nor audio recordings in most federal courtrooms, Issa said, so when looking at the three branches, the question the data transparency world should ask is, “Why isn’t there some level of consistency?”
Once chance per transition
Continuity is also something the two congressmen said they would be working on.
Quigley said he hoped his Republican colleagues would push for transparency of the new administration just as they did for the previous one.
Issa said he agreed with his fellow congressman, and said it was important to act quickly and use the momentum started by “stalwarts” like himself, Chaffetz, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)
“If we can be backed up, we become a majority. The Democrats who for partisan reasons might have a reason, or they might be genuine about transparency, the Republicans who were on the record for transparency whether it was partisan or genuine, who now are trapped in a position of either being hypocrites or being consistent, and you only get that chance when there’s a change in the administration,” Issa said. “I think we need to use it.”