March 19, 2008

SUNSHINE WEEK: Vote for Sunshine

Presidential Candidates Illuminate stance on Sunshine Laws

Sunshine Week organizers collaborated with México Abierto (Open Mexico) to examine the 2008 U.S. presidential candidates’ positions on open government laws and their interactions with the news media.

According to the report, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) stands as the only candidate who responded to the Sunshine Week open government survey. Sen. Barak Obama (D-IL) stands as the only candidate to sign th e Oath of Presidential Transparency.

Obama is the only candidate to release his tax information. Clinton pledges to release her tax information in April. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has no plans to release his tax information.

Last November, organizers of this year's Sunshine Week launched their Sunshine Campaign. The initiative focuses on open government issues surrounding local and national elections.

Here is the Sunshine Week article:

Sen. Hillary Clinton

Sen. Clinton has included her proposals on open government issues in a 10-point plan for government reform.

"This is a plan to enhance accountability and transparency and make government more efficient and effective for taxpayers," Clinton said in an April 2007 speech announcing the plan. "To replace secrecy and mystery with transparency."

Among the plan's open government proposals are: ending no-bid government contracts and posting all federal contracts online, publishing the budgets of every government agency, bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment to safeguard scientific integrity, and putting more government services online. Clinton also calls for stronger protection for government whistleblowers.

Read Clinton's responses to the Sunshine Week open government survey.

On the Records

Clinton's commitment to transparency has been questioned, however, over the time it took to release records covering her activities during Bill Clinton's presidency. The records, housed at her husband's presidential library in Arkansas, were first reviewed by the National Archives and Records Administration, and then sent to Clinton advisers for review. This process is required under an executive order signed by President Bush in 2001.

During the Feb. 26 debate in Cleveland, Clinton was asked again about release of the records, particularly since they'd been cleared by the Archives.

"I've urged that the process be as quick as possible," she replied. "It's a cumbersome process, set up by law. It doesn't just apply to us; it applies to everyone in our position. And I have urged that our end of it move as expeditiously as we can." Clinton also called on the White House to move quickly on its review of the information, which is also a step proscribed by the executive order.

In early March, the first batch of daily calendars was released, but Archives officials said it would be at least another year, maybe two, before phone logs would be similarly available, according to a report in The Hill.

Clinton is expected to release her tax returns "on or around April 15," according to ABC News.

Press Matters

The Bill Clinton administration was marked by a "long and wary relationship with the press," according to an analysis by The First Amendment Center. One of Clinton's first acts upon moving to the White House in 1993 reportedly was to end "the routine access to the West Wing that reporters covering the White House had enjoyed for decades."

The First Amendment Center analysis noted: "More than 14 years later, by many accounts, Sen. Clinton still has disdain for journalists and their prying predilections. But her years in the White House, in the Senate and now in the presidential campaign have taught her she needs at least to get along with the press and tolerate its excesses, at least most of the time, without exacting revenge."

Sen. John McCain

In the Lobbying and Ethics Reform section of his campaign Web site, McCain discusses the importance of transparency mainly in relation to earmarks and lobbyists' access to and influence over lawmakers.

"A democratic government operates best in the disinfecting light of the public eye. Ethics and transparency are not election year buzz words; they are the obligations of democracy and the duties of honorable public service," McCain is quoted.

Regarding earmarks, the site says, "As President, John McCain would shine the disinfecting light of public scrutiny on those who abuse the public purse, use the power of the presidency to restore fiscal responsibility, and exercise the veto pen to enforce it."

A Mixed Bag

McCain has supported the release of Congressional Research Service reports to the public, and has spoken in favor of a federal shield law for reporters. "It may require more debate and all that, but I really feel that freedom of the press is a constitutional right, as we all know, and should be protected as much as humanly possible," he told the Arizona Republic.

An analysis by The First Amendment Center, however, finds that McCain is often willing to place achieving other goals such as campaign finance reform and banning flag burning above free speech rights. For example, of the McCain-Feingold campaign legislation, which was criticized for restricting political speech, McCain argued that limiting pre-election ads was a "limited and tolerable" speech control made necessary by the "compelling government interest at stake."

McCain reportedly also has supported the continued classification of certain records from the Vietnam War.

Press Matters

A January article in The Washington Post noted McCain's "infinite access" to the reporters covering his campaign — and his ability to engage in great conversations.

When asked if that would continue if he were the Republican nominee, McCain told the Post that he wouldn't stop because it would hurt his credibility to do so. In addition, McCain said he enjoys it.

Of course, that was all before a February New York Times article about a possibly inappropriate relationship between McCain and a female lobbyist. The next day McCain denied the accusations and one of his senior advisers strongly criticized the Times, likening its reporting to tabloid journalism.

McCain has refused to release his income tax returns, The Washington Post reported.

Sen. Barack Obama

Obama has outlined an ambitious transparency plan that incorporates technology to "help connect government to its citizens and engage citizens in a democracy."

Among the proposals in Obama's plan to open government are: putting government data online in accessible formats; airing live webcasts of agency meetings; restoring scientific integrity; allowing people to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks and lobbyist contacts online; and allowing five days for public to review and comment on legislation online before its signed.

In an October 2007 speech, Obama pledged to "turn the page on a growing empire of classified information, and restore the balance we've lost between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in a democratic society by creating a new National Declassification Center."

Past is Prologue

One of Obama's most visible Senate actions on the open government front was his co-sponsorship of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2008 with the launch of, a Web site that gives people access to information on government contracts, grants and other awards.

As an Illinois state senator, Obama co-sponsored the Verbatim Record Bill, requiring public agencies to video or audio record closed door meetings, The First Amendment Center reported, noting the law was the first of its kind enacted by any state.

Obama is the only remaining candidate to have signed the Reason Foundation's Oath of Presidential Transparency, and, according to The Washington Post he is the only leading candidate to have released his income tax returns.

The Chicago Sun-Times, however, pointed out several instances where Obama's transparency has been a little more opaque. Among them is the inability to produce records from his term as state senator, which Obama says is due simply to the lack of archivist resources.

Press Matters

Much has been made recently of the national news media's infatuation with Obama, which was skewered in a much-discussed Saturday Night Live skit that even prompted comments from Clinton about its veracity.

But as Bloomberg News columnist Maggie Carlson noted, members of the news media "are reacting to charges that they have gone easy on Obama." It is "the nature of the press to have severe morning-after regret for having gotten a lump in the throat over a candidate," she wrote.

Reporting in The Washington Post earlier this year discussed Obama's lack of engagement with — even insulation from — the press covering his campaign. "Obama often goes days without taking questions from national reporters, and when he does, the sessions can be slapdash affairs.... Some reporters say Obama seems disdainful toward journalists, having submitted to precisely one off-the-record chat over beer several months ago in Iowa."