by Jim Harper
The New York Times has an interesting story on President Obama’s continuing failure to follow through on his “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. On the campaign trail, he said he would post bills online for five days before signing them. Two dozen bills now have his signature, and only one has been posted for five days before signing.
The article (and accompanying video) fixes on a couple of reasons why the president might be excused from carrying out the promise. One is the technical difficulty of managing potentially hundreds of thousands of comments. The promise did not include a promise to publish comments, though — much less to read them (though it would be politically astute to appear to do so). In my view, the difficulty of administering a public comment system — which was not part of the promise — does not excuse the failure to post the bills Congress presents to the president for five days before he signs them.
A second excuse is that posting bills online would be ineffectual. Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation is quoted saying, “There isn’t anybody in this town who doesn’t know that commenting after a bill has been passed is meaningless.”
I have done my level-best to illustrate how a five-day hold at the White House would have good effects on reducing earmarks, parochial amendments, and other shenanigans — such as congressional approval of bonuses to AIG executives.
Miller’s preferred approach — placing a similar hold on bills before they leave Congress — would have a similar effect — but nothing dramatically more open. Just as under a presidential hold, members of Congress and Senators would be more reticent to introduce potentially controversial amendments. Just as under a presidential hold, they would carefully avoid a blossoming of debate about their pet projects at the end of the legislative process. A congressional hold would change the upstream behavior of the politicians — just like a presidential hold would.
A presidential hold and a congressional hold are both good ideas, and they are not mutually exclusive. The presidential hold has a key advantage: The president has already promised it — to the cheers of American voters.
The New York Times story reports a small step toward meeting the actual terms of President Obama’s pledge:
“In order to continue providing the American people more transparency in government, once it is clear that a bill will be coming to the president’s desk, the White House will post the bill online,” said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman. “This will give the American people a greater ability to review the bill, often many more than five days before the president signs it into law.”
If this means posting links to bills on the Thomas legislative system from Whitehouse.gov, this is something the White House has done sporadically, and it would increase transparency by a small margin if it were regularized. The administration should establish a uniform URL where bills are posted so that every American can easily find every bill the president signs. But, in terms of fulfilling President Obama’s promise, “posting a link from WhiteHouse.gov to THOMAS of a conference report that is expected to pass doesn’t cut it.”
I think this is grudging progress toward implementation of President Obama’s “Sunlight Before Signing” promise. In the video, the author of the Times article has the best line illustrating why the White House deserves modest congratulations for taking this step: “It’s a lot easier to promise to change Washington than it is to actually change it.”