Better Know a Super Committee

Super committee member Xavier Becerra (D-CA) says everything should be on the table, and that there are "no sacred cows" as they scramble to cut $1.5 trillion from the deficit (jobs!).  No sacred cows except their campaign contributions and contact with lobbyists as they meet, that is. 

Watchdogs have circled on that theme hoping to pressure members to voluntarily disclose campaign donations and contacts with lobbyists.  Politico:

[...] a coalition of government reform and transparency organizations are demanding that supercommittee members voluntarily disclose their committee-related contacts with lobbyists and publicly report any campaign donations within 48 hours of receiving them.

The groups note in the letter that most federally mandated lobbying and campaign finance disclosure reports covering October, November and December – when the supercommittee is slated to conduct the bulk of its work – won’t become public until mid-January.

“Failure to ensure transparency of these fundamental avenues of influence will reinforce the public’s mistrust of the process and risks delegitimizing the committee’s work,” the 14 groups wrote in a joint letter being sent this afternoon to the dozen supercommittee members. “Your critical work on this committee has begun, and yet the public remains in the dark about special interests’ attempts to influence your decision-making process, whether by meeting with you or donating to your campaigns.”

According to Politico only three committee members have agreed to halt fundraising while the committee meets, but so far none have agreed to voluntarily disclose important details about contacts.  Lobbyists see the opportunity here with the concentration of power and no mandate for disclosure.  The Sunlight Foundation is hoping that changes with H.R.2860, the Deficit Committee Transparency Act.  Sunlight's Ellen Miller, via email:

Without transparency around this process, we don’t know who the committee members are listening to. But we can take a guess: Money speaks louder than words in Washington.

The committee members could easily take measures to increase transparency on their own: Disclosing their campaign contributions and meetings with lobbyists or powerful interests in real-time would be one way. But while the Committee has at least taken steps to have a few open meetings, it’s business as usual when it comes to campaign fundraising and secret meetings with powerful special interests.

This legislation can change that, but it needs your help. The bill has been introduced, but it needs cosponsors to gain momentum while it still counts -- the Super Committee has already started its work, and it has to make its recommendations by December, right around the corner.

Open the Super Congress. Ask your representatives to cosponsor the Super Congress transparency bill!

I sat in on a conference call with Sunlight policy wonks and staffers from  sponsor Rep. Loebsack's office last week that detailed the bill and the campaign.  Recording posted here.

Most of us are hoping this committee, like the Catfood Commission, just goes away.  But their recommendations in December might not.  Without this legislation, details on who influenced the committee won't drop until it's too late.  This may be an atypical disclosure ask, but this is an atypical committee about to make recommendations that could effect programs like Medicare and Social Security for the next generation.

Call your reps.

Better Know a Super Committee

Super committee member Xavier Becerra (D-CA) says everything should be on the table, and that there are "no sacred cows" as they scramble to cut $1.5 trillion from the deficit (jobs!).  No sacred cows except their campaign contributions and contact with lobbyists as they meet, that is. 

Watchdogs have circled on that theme hoping to pressure members to voluntarily disclose campaign donations and contacts with lobbyists.  Politico:

[...] a coalition of government reform and transparency organizations are demanding that supercommittee members voluntarily disclose their committee-related contacts with lobbyists and publicly report any campaign donations within 48 hours of receiving them.

The groups note in the letter that most federally mandated lobbying and campaign finance disclosure reports covering October, November and December – when the supercommittee is slated to conduct the bulk of its work – won’t become public until mid-January.

“Failure to ensure transparency of these fundamental avenues of influence will reinforce the public’s mistrust of the process and risks delegitimizing the committee’s work,” the 14 groups wrote in a joint letter being sent this afternoon to the dozen supercommittee members. “Your critical work on this committee has begun, and yet the public remains in the dark about special interests’ attempts to influence your decision-making process, whether by meeting with you or donating to your campaigns.”

According to Politico only three committee members have agreed to halt fundraising while the committee meets, but so far none have agreed to voluntarily disclose important details about contacts.  Lobbyists see the opportunity here with the concentration of power and no mandate for disclosure.  The Sunlight Foundation is hoping that changes with H.R.2860, the Deficit Committee Transparency Act.  Sunlight's Ellen Miller, via email:

Without transparency around this process, we don’t know who the committee members are listening to. But we can take a guess: Money speaks louder than words in Washington.

The committee members could easily take measures to increase transparency on their own: Disclosing their campaign contributions and meetings with lobbyists or powerful interests in real-time would be one way. But while the Committee has at least taken steps to have a few open meetings, it’s business as usual when it comes to campaign fundraising and secret meetings with powerful special interests.

This legislation can change that, but it needs your help. The bill has been introduced, but it needs cosponsors to gain momentum while it still counts -- the Super Committee has already started its work, and it has to make its recommendations by December, right around the corner.

Open the Super Congress. Ask your representatives to cosponsor the Super Congress transparency bill!

I sat in on a conference call with Sunlight policy wonks and staffers from  sponsor Rep. Loebsack's office last week that detailed the bill and the campaign.  Recording posted here.

Most of us are hoping this committee, like the Catfood Commission, just goes away.  But their recommendations in December might not.  Without this legislation, details on who influenced the committee won't drop until it's too late.  This may be an atypical disclosure ask, but this is an atypical committee about to make recommendations that could effect programs like Medicare and Social Security for the next generation.

Call your reps.

Budget Cuts Threatening Government Transparency

Alternet has some depressing news from the open government front:

Data.gov, Apps.gov, USAspending.gov, and Paymentaccuracy.gov are sites that help the government operate more effectively and efficiently, saving taxpayer money and helping public oversight. They increase citizen knowledge of and involvement in the democratic process. Data.gov launched a few years ago, then a few months later both New York and San Francisco introduced their own sites for detailed, city-specific data, and Data.gov.uk launched not too long after. A movement for open government was clearly been building momentum, and the popularity of data itself in other sectors continues to rise.

However, in the next few months, these open data sites are slated to be shut down due to budget cuts under consideration – the current annual budget of $37 million will be reduced to $2 million.

The Sunlight Foundation states in response:

"An open and accountable government is a prerequisite for democracy. Keeping these programs alive would cost a mere pittance when compared to the value of bringing the federal government into the sunlight. As you consider the budget for the remainder of this year, please sustain funding for these vital transparency programs."

They've got a petition we can sign to show our support for continued funding of transparent, accountable government.

Private sector and public/private sites like City Forward and Recovery.org are a great supplement for public sector efforts, but we need to fight to keep our government accountable to citizens.  

Weekly Audit: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing--The Myth of Fiscal Conservatism

By Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

Fashionable pundits like to say that the Republican Party has shifted its focus from “social conservatism” (e.g., banning abortion, shoving gays back in the closet, teaching school children that humans and dinosaurs once walked the earth hand-in-claw) to fiscal conservatism (e.g., tax cuts for the rich, slashing social programs). But is that really true? Tim Murphy ofMother Jones argues that the old culture war issues never really went away. Rather, the Republicans have simply rephrased their social agenda in fiscal terms.

For example, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) is quite upfront about the fact that he hates Planned Parenthood because the group is the nation’s leading abortion provider. Yet, he seeks to de-fund the Planned Parenthood and the entire Title X Family Planning Program in the name of balancing the budget. Never mind that the federal money only goes toward birth control, not abortion, and research shows that every dollar spent on birth control saves $4 in Medicaid costs alone.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly surveys the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls in Iowa and agrees that reports of the death of the culture war have been greatly exaggerated.

But the key takeaway here is that fiscal issues have largely been relegated to afterthought status. That’s just not what these right-wing activists — the ones who’ll largely dictate the outcome of the caucuses — are focused on. Indeed, even Ron Paul, after pandering to a home-school crowd last week, conceded, “I haven’t been asked too much about fiscal issues.”

Budget cuts

Sarah Babbage writes in TAPPED that Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress seem poised to grant an additional $20 billion in spending cuts for FY 2011, in addition to the $10 billion in cuts they’ve already pledged for this fiscal year. Babbage notes that, after weeks of negotiations, we’re right back to the $30 billion in cuts the GOP initially demanded. She warns that these cuts will have a trivial impact on the $1.6 trillion deficit, but they could have a devastating effect on the fragile economy.

Taxes for thee, but not GE

General Electric raked in $14.2 billion in profits last year, $5.1 billion of which came from the United States, yet the company paid $0 in U.S. income tax, Tara Lohan notes in AlterNet. Despite its healthy bottom line, and its sweet tax situation, GE is asking 15,000 unionized U.S. workers to make major concessions at the bargaining table. GE wants union members to give up defined benefit pension programs in exchange for defined contribution programs.

As we discussed last week in The Audit, defined benefit plans guarantee that a retiree will get a set percentage of her working salary for the rest of her life; defined contribution plans pay the worker a share of the revenue from a pool of investments. As the fine print always says, investments can decrease in value. So, if the stock market crashes the day before you retire, you’re out of luck.

Generation Debt

Higher education is supposed to be a stepping stone to a better standard of living, but with unemployment hovering around 10%, many college graduates are struggling to find jobs to pay their student loans. Aliya Karim argues in Campus Progress that the government should compel colleges and universities to be more transparent about the realities of student loan debt:

The government should require colleges to provide information about graduation rates, college costs, and financial aid packages on college websites, enrollment forms, and guidebooks. This information should be easy to find and understand. Without such information available to them, students may not be aware that their future college has a graduation rate lower than 20 percent or that its graduates face close to $30,000 in debt.

The government has a lot of leverage over public and private schools because so much student debt is guaranteed by taxpayers. Greater transparency will enable students to make more informed choices, and give colleges with low graduation rates a greater incentive to clean up their act.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The MulchThe Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

State Legislatures Shutting Down Transparency

Crossposting my guest blog for the Sunlight Foundation on anti-transparency legislation passed in Utah.  Read more about similar secrecy grabs taking place in Maine and Tennessee at the Sunlight Blog.

Utah Legislators' Secrecy Grab: Transparency Under Attack

With a 21-7 vote, the Utah State Senate last week approved an overhaul of the state's Government Records and Access Management Act (GRAMA). HB477 would shield lawmakers' voicemail, text messages, instant messages possibly even email from public record. Only one Republican voted against the bill. Senate sponsor Sen. Lyle Hillyard explained in an email exchange with a constituent his reason for co-sponsoring the bill:

Some people who know me don't know there is a difference and some think that when I am out of the office that my senate e-mail is the only way to contact me. Our staff is tired of the threats from the media and we plan on working with them if they want after the bill is passed if there are changes to be made but let's do it without threats of going to court.

First introduced in a surprise hearing by House sponsor Rep. John Dougall, the bill would also allow agencies to charge "professional rate" fees for requests, and guide courts to seek a "preponderance of evidence" justifying a releasing documents. The current GRAMA law instructs courts to focus on the public benefit of release. The bill passed the house 61-12 on Thursday, and the Senate less than 24 hours later so as to avoid, in the words of Senate President Michael Waddoups, letting it "fester" over the weekend. Sen. Hillyard declared proudly, "I'm doing this for future legislatures!". The House released this statement after final passage:

A core concern with GRAMA is the distinction between a conversation and a record. When GRAMA was created it wasn’t fathomed that day-to-day conversations would be considered as records. But what you and we now consider a digital conversation is now considered public record: text messages, voice mails, instant message logs. If that’s the case, why not just mic up every elected official and the tens of thousands of public employees across the state? Not only is it an impossible task, it’s also a gross invasion of privacy. And so we come to Rep. John Dougall and House Bill 477. The bill resets GRAMA with today’s technology in mind and clarifies legislative intent where court decisions have swung the pendulum dangerously far in one direction.

The Senate majority issued a statement, as well as the audio of Rep. Dougall's bill introduction. Lawmakers quickly moved on to controversial immigration reform bills, hoping to regain control of the narrative. What they didn't count on was an enraged public.  This bill has drawn criticism from both progressive and conservative state organizations. Even Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka, normally kind to the legislature, said "I hated the process," and called parts of the bill "outrageous." Reaction was broad, bipartisan and decidedly against the changes proposed. By Monday morning, the Governor's office had been flooded with calls and emails demanding a veto of the bill, an online petition had garnered nearly 1,000 signatures in a matter of hours, and two separate rallies had been planned for the final few days of the legislative session. Even after a veto threat from Governor Herbert resulted in a rare recall of HB477 to change the implementation date a rally organized on Facebook by local blogger Bob Aagard drew more than 150 protesters to the Capital Rotunda. But that night, the Governor signed the bill into law, promising a non-binding "work group" will be formed to consider amendments before implementation. The Utah Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists responded:

Perhaps worst of all, HB477 strips from Utah’s public records law language stating clearly that government records are presumed to be public and that the burden is on government to show why records should not be disclosed. This is critical language, language recognized by the statutes or common law of every state in the country. “With one scribble of a pen, the governor made his state the most secretive in the nation, as well as more backward than most countries, including Mexico and Albania,” said SPJ FOI Committee chairman David Cuillier. “This will price citizens out of their government, encourage corruption and online sweetheart deals, and embolden those who would undermine democratic principles.

Legislators have responded to the backlash from transparency advocates, angry voters and journalists by scapegoating local media as unable to report objectively on the issue, accusing the public of not understanding the bill, and anecdotal misleading justification for the changes. Bill sponsors Dougall and Hillyard have said they only seek to protect legislators' private communications. What they don't explain is that the current law already does.

HB477 represents an arrogant legislative body placing their own position and power above the right of citizens to know what business is done in their name. In a state already challenged by one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, legislators have acted selfishly and in bad faith, placing themselves above increasing the confidence of voters in the integrity of their public institutions.

With the Governor's signature, the law is set to take effect July 1st.  A citizen group has filed a referendum petition to repeal the law entirely, and has 40 days to collect enough signatures to get it on the ballot this fall.

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