Obama Fails to Deliver Transparency as Cabinet Defies Requests
More than half of President Barack Obama’s cabinet agencies continue to defy open-government rules by not disclosing the cost of travel by top officials.
Nine of 15 cabinet offices have yet to release details of their out-of-town travel records six months after Bloomberg News filed requests for those documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services are among those who haven’t complied.
The law requires agencies to respond to requests within 20 working days. Watchdogs say the delays show that the president hasn’t fulfilled his promise of greater transparency, and one group found that more than half of 99 federal offices ignored a directive to overhaul the way they respond to filings.
“I’m concerned about the overall transparency arc for Obama’s second term,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at Washington-based open-government group the Sunlight Foundation. “Has he given up on that mantle of being the transparency reformer?”
Bloomberg reporters in June filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for records on taxpayer-supported travel in fiscal year 2011 for 57 Cabinet departments and major government agencies.
Only eight agencies complied within the 20-day deadline. About half of those contacted by Bloomberg disclosed the data within three months of the filings. Since then, eight more agencies have responded with the information, bringing the total to 38 out of 57.
‘Days, Not Months’
“What this study shows is that, even for straightforward documents, it takes way too long and agencies really need to focus more on improving their FOIA process,” said Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, an Arlington, Virginia-based coalition of media groups. “It should be a matter of days, not months and certainly not years.”
The lowest rate of response -- 40 percent -- has come from Obama’s cabinet. Among executive departments, only Treasury, Homeland Security, Labor, Commerce, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs released travel details.
Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Department of Justice monitors FOIA responses, also hasn’t complied with the law.
Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment about the Bloomberg survey results.
In addition to the Department of Justice, travel records were still outstanding for State, Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Energy, Housing and Urban Development and Education as of Dec. 12.
“That’s enormously disappointing and very troubling,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government, a Washington-based group that files frequent open-record requests. The response rate shows that “they are big on ideas, but short on implementation.”
During the first year of the Obama administration, cabinet agencies employed exemptions 466,402 times, a 50 percent jump from the last year of the presidency of George W. Bush. While exemption citations have since been reduced, they still are above the level seen during the Bush administration, according to Justice Department data.
Obama called FOIA, which was passed during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the “most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open government,” in a memo to department and agency heads on Jan. 21, 2009, his first full day in office.
The president pledged in an executive order to improve government transparency through technology upgrades and interagency reviews. He also instructed agencies that disclosure should be the default position on most requests.
Holder followed up Obama’s statement with his own directive in March 2009, ordering government agencies to review their internal FOIA rules to improve response records, in part to comply with the OPEN Government Act passed by Congress in 2007. In the memo, Holder said that timeliness of FOIA responses was “an essential component of transparency.”
That instruction didn’t have a big impact on the workings of government.
The National Security Archive, a Washington-based information repository, said in a Dec. 4 study that 62 of the 99 government agencies it reviewed hadn’t updated their response practices more than three years after Holder’s guidance was issued.
“The policy directives from the Obama administration have been great, but the implementation is only halfway to the mark,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the archive. “The challenge is to cattle-prod those recalcitrant agencies into living up to the president’s promises.”
Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the audit “makes clear that the overwhelming majority of federal agencies are neither fulfilling the president’s promise of an open and transparent government for the American people, nor complying with the vital reforms in the FOIA process that Congress demanded.”
Leahy is the co-author of a measure that would establish an advisory panel to examine agency FOIA backlogs and recommend ways to boost government responsiveness to information requests. The legislation hasn’t become law.
Darrell Issa, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, agreed that the president has a mixed record.
“While I applaud the Obama administration for setting high goals on transparency, too often their rhetoric about what’s supposed to happen obscures a real lack of progress,” Issa said in an e-mailed statement. “Officials too often try to stop or delay release of the most telling information.”
Government travel and entertainment costs have drawn the attention of lawmakers since the General Service Administration’s inspector general revealed in April that an agency sponsored conference in Las Vegas cost more than $823,000.
Records obtained as a result of another Bloomberg FOIA request showed that the GSA almost tripled its expenditures for conferences from 2005 to 2010. Taxpayers paid $27.8 million for more than 200 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 GSA employees over the five-year period, the records showed.
A separate FOIA filing revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs spent about $295 million of taxpayer money for almost 1,600 overnight gatherings attended by at least 50 agency employees since 2005.
FOIA officers for some departments cited the events schedules for secretaries as proof of the administration’s openness. Holder, Clinton and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offer details of diaries on department websites. The Justice Department said in an e-mailed statement the travel records request “involves many records” that require “extensive review” to scrub data for protected information, including security details.
Visitors to the State Department website can view the “Travels with the Secretary” page, which includes an interactive map of Clinton’s official visits. Since 2009, the secretary of state has visited 112 countries, traveled almost 960,000 miles over the course of 401 days, and spent more than 2,000 hours in the air. The page doesn’t disclose any cost to the taxpayer. The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment.
When asked why the travel records aren’t automatically made available to the public online, Pentagon Spokesman Tom Crosson said in an e-mail that “to collect, organize, review, redact and post every senior leader travel document would be extremely time consuming and resource prohibitive.”
Senior managers at the U.S. Postal Service reported $806,000 in travel costs and expenses for fiscal 2012, compared with about $700,000 the year before, the department’s inspector general said this month. While that total includes the amount spent by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe, that figure isn’t broken out and the post office is one of the 19 federal departments that hasn’t responded to Bloomberg’s records request. The Post Office lost $15.9 billion in the year ended Sept. 30 and has exhausted its $15 billion borrowing limit from the U.S. Treasury.
Under FOIA, agencies that cannot meet the 20-day deadline for disclosure have an obligation to provide a timeframe for the delivery of requested information. Documents pertaining to the travel records of Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, are estimated to be available in July 2013, according to a State Department FOIA official.
Blanton said Obama does deserve credit for taking several steps toward more transparency, including the voluntary release of White House visitor logs, disclosure of the national intelligence budget, and the release of data on the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The government received 644,165 FOIA inquiries in 2011. Agencies and departments processed 372,422 requests within the 20-day the deadline set by the law, according to FOIA.gov, the disclosure website maintained by the Department of Justice. Another 13,539 queries took more than 400 days to complete, meaning the agency released all or some of the information or denied the request entirely.
Forcing the government bureaucracy to become more responsive in Obama’s second term would allow the president to leave a true legacy of transparency, the Sunlight Foundation’s Wonderlich said.
“These accountability mechanisms should not be viewed only as to how they reflect on President Obama,” he said. “In the future, we’re going to have terrible presidents and terrible cabinet secretaries, so Obama should be focused on how our government should function, not his administration’s record or reputation.”