Thursday, February 24, 2011

From C-SPAN Promises to Secret Meetings: Obama’s Broken Transparency Promises

Politico has a story this morning about the secret meetings Administration officials are holding with lobbyists outside the White House gates – primarily so they can avoid the visitor disclosure requirements the Obama Administration implemented for “official” meetings on White House grounds.  Among the nuggets in the story describing Administration officials’ furtive machinations:

  • “Several of the lobbyists involved [in off-site meetings] say they believe the choice of venue is no accident.  It allows the Obama Administration to keep these lobbyist meetings shielded from public view – and out of Secret Service logs collected on visitors…and later released to the public.”
  • “At least four lobbyists…had the distinct impression they were being shunted off…so their visits wouldn’t later be made public.”
  • “There are no records of meetings at the row houses just off Lafayette Square that house the White House Conference Center and the Council on Environmental Quality, home to two of the busiest meeting spaces.  The White House can’t say who attended meetings there, or how often.  The Secret Service doesn’t log in visitors or require a background check the way it does at the main gates of the White House.”
  • “[Lobbyists] say the White House is generally happy to meet with them and their clients once or twice, but get leery when an issue requires multiple visits and begin pushing for phone calls or meetings outside the White House’s gates.  ‘Without question, I think that there’s a lot of concern about being seen meeting with the same lobbyists or particular lobbyists over and over again,’” according to one lobbyist.
  • “Another favorite off-campus meeting spot is a nearby Caribou Coffee, which, according to the New York Times, has hosted hundreds of meetings among lobbyists and White House staffers since Obama took office.”
  • “Administration officials recently asked some lobbyists and others who met with them to sign confidentiality agreements barring them from disclosing what was discussed at meetings with administration officials….[the practice] has come under fire from lobbyists and a top House Republican, who have criticized the demand that participants sign a ‘gag order’ before being allowed into meetings.”
  • “[A] veteran lobbyist said no other administration he’s worked with has so often responded to routine email queries with the same three-word response, ‘Gimme a ring.’”
  • “‘My understanding was they were holding the meeting there because it included several high-level business and trade association lobbyists,’ said a senior business lobbyist who attended [a meeting on immigration].  ‘This was an effort to not have to go through the security protocols at the White House which could lead to the visitor logs at some point being released to the public and embarrass the president.’”

Unfortunately, secret meetings with lobbyists are not the only way in which the Administration has acted in non-transparent ways.  Just last month, the Administration was forced to withdraw other controversial regulations surrounding end-of-life care, after leaked e-mails suggested that Democrats deliberately sought to enact regulatory provisions without providing the public an opportunity to comment on them.  The White House still has yet to provide a full and public accounting of who or what (secret meetings, perhaps?) was behind this highly unusual turn of events.  Worse yet, the New York Times reported earlier this month on other questionable developments regarding the rulemaking process – implying that Administration officials had already decided to require insurers to cover of contraceptive services, and were merely undertaking an outside consultation on the issue “for show.”

The ready willingness of Administration officials to avoid procedures designed to allow public scrutiny of their actions does not speak well to the its ability to operate with the “unmatched level of transparency, participation, and accountability” promised by the President.  For a President that promised to televise all health care negotiations on C-SPAN, yet another story about the ways in which government officials keep attempting to circumvent transparency measures illustrates how far the Administration needs to go to enhance public disclosure while implementing the massive, 2,700 page health care law.