Obama fall­ing short of bill-sign­ing pledge

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY KARA ROW­LAND

The White House in re­cent weeks took a step to­ward ful­fill­ing one of Pres­i­dent Obama’s trans­parency pledges from the cam­paign by post­ing a link on its main Web site for Amer­i­cans to com­ment on bills he’s about to sign into law.

That still didn’t help Mr. Obama keep his pledge when he signed two gi­ant spending bills this month.

Both the om­nibus and the de­fense ap­pro­pri­a­tions bills had been posted for just two days when the pres­i­dent signed them — de­spite to­tal­ing more than $1 tr il­lion in com­bined dis­cre­tionary spending and in­clud­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in earmarks in­serted by law­mak­ers for fa­vored projects.

As he nears the end of his first year in of­fice, Mr. Obama re­peat­edly has fallen short on his pledge to have all bills Congress sends to him posted and open for com­ments for at least five days be­fore he de­cides to sign them.

A Wash­ing­ton Times anal­y­sis of data from the Li­brary of Congress found that on 32 of the 117 bills he signed through Dec. 21 Mr. Obama didn’t wait the full five days af­ter the bill reached his desk to pick up his pen.

In June, re­al­iz­ing they were fall­ing short, White House of­fi­cials al­tered their pledge. Spokesman Nick Shapiro told the New York Times that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would post a link to the Li­brary of Congress Web site and start the five-day clock “once it is clear that a bill will be com­ing to the pres­i­dent’s desk.”

Yet even un­der those amended terms, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is still com­ing up short. A Cato In­sti­tute anal­y­sis finds that on 43 of the 117 bills Mr. Obama has signed, the White House didn’t even bother to post a link to the bill or al­low com­ments. The ad­min­is­tra­tion dis­putes Cato’s num­bers.

Mr. Shapiro said at least some of the bills Cato lists were posted for com­ment but were dropped from the Web site when it was up­graded ear­lier this year.

Mr. Shapiro de­clined to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle on how the White House views its per­form- ance in meet­ing the pledge, de­clined to pro­vide num­bers on how of­ten since June it thinks it has met the mod­i­fied pledge and de­clined to talk about how many com­ments it has re­ceived or how much in­flu­ence the com­ments have on Mr. Obama.

“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 posts the bill on­line. This gives the Amer­i­can peo­ple a greater abil­ity to re­view the bill, of­ten many more than five days be­fore the pres­i­dent signs it into law,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Jim Harper, di­rec­tor of in­for­ma­tion pol­icy stud­ies at Cato, a lib­er­tar­ian think tank, said that by his cal­cu­la­tions, only once in 117 bills has the White House posted leg­is­la­tion for at least five days once Congress passed it — al­ready a lower bench­mark than af­ter the bill is ac­tu­ally pre­sented to the White House. That bill, to de­lay the dig­i­tal tele­vi­sion tran­si­tion, was passed on Feb. 4 and posted the next day; it was passed on to Mr. Obama on Feb. 9, and he signed it two days later.

“It’s not a very good av­er­age,” Mr. Harper said. “A prom­ise is a prom­ise is a prom­ise.”

Mr. Obama made the trans­parency vow first as a can­di­date: “When there’s a bill that ends up on my desk as pres­i­dent, you the pub­lic will have five days to look on­line and find out what’s in it be­fore I sign it, so that you know what your gov­ern­ment’s do­ing,” he told an au­di­ence in Seat­tle in Septem­ber 2008.

Then, when he was pres­i­den­t­elect, Mr. Obama’s Change.gov Web site pledged: “As pres­i­dent, Obama will not sign any non­emer­gency bill without giv­ing the Amer­i­can pub­lic an op­por­tu­nity to re­view and com­ment on the White House Web site for five days.”

How­ever, a re­view of ev­ery bill Mr. Obama has signed into law thus far shows that he has taken fewer than five days on 32 oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing on some of the most con­tentious pieces of leg­is­la­tion, many of which were not slated to take ef­fect for months. Among those big bills on which the pledge wasn’t ful- filled: the $787 bil­lion eco­nomic stim­u­lus pack­age, the Credit Card­holder’s Bill of Rights, and the two catchall “om­nibus” spending bills for fis­cal years 2009 and 2010.

In the 85 in­stances when he waited more than five days, the bills were al­most al­ways U.S. post of­fice des­ig­na­tions or sim­i­larly non­con­tro­ver­sial leg­is­la­tion — which, though they are non-emer­gency bills, the White House does not post.

The pol­icy “doesn’t ap­ply to the scores of cer­e­mo­nial bills such as the nam­ing of fed­eral build­ings and post offices iden­ti­fied in this story,” Mr. Shapiro said.

On 10 oc­ca­sions, Mr. Obama signed the bill on the very same day he re­ceived it.

It’s not clear that the com­ments, when re­ceived, have had any ef­fect on Mr. Obama’s po­si­tions — he is ex­pected to end the year without a veto.

Some ad­vo­cates of gov­ern­ment open­ness ques­tion the value of Mr. Obama’s pledge over­all.

“I don’t think this is the most mean­ing­ful prom­ise in the world,” said John Won­der­lich, pol­icy di­rec­tor at the Sun­light Foun­da­tion, not­ing that re­quir­ing Congress to post bills on­line for the pub­lic 72 hours be­fore a vote would be more valu­able. “Still, they made a clear prom­ise and aren’t de­liv­er­ing on it.”

It was only this month that the White House es­tab­lished a link on its main home page for users to com­ment on pend­ing leg­is­la­tion. Be­fore that, few peo­ple other than mem­bers of the White House staff likely were aware of bills be­ing posted, Mr. Harper said.

“Tech­ni­cally, if you knew they had been pre­sented and did a search on Whitehouse.gov, you could find them,” he said. “But that doesn’t help the av­er­age Amer­i­can.”

Un­der­scor­ing the in­con­sis­tency, the White House treated the two spending bills Mr. Obama signed re­cently dif­fer­ently. Con­sis­tent with their new prac­tice, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials posted a link in the “pend­ing leg­is­la­tion” sec­tion to the om­nibus spending bill two days be- fore the pres­i­dent signed it — but didn’t post a link to the de­fense spending bill. The only way that could be found was if a user knew what to search for.

Mr. Shapiro said the pledge did not ap­ply to the two re­cent spending bills be­cause they were emer­gen­cies.

Though the ad­min­is­tra­tion al­lowed it­self a loop­hole for emer­gency leg­is­la­tion, it’s not clear that all of the 32 bills Mr. Obama rushed to sign could be de­scribed as such.

He signed the State Chil­dren’s Health In­sur­ance Pro­gram, or “S-CHIP,” into law on the very day he re­ceived it — Feb. 4 — but it did not be­come ef­fec­tive un­til April 1. In an­other in­stance, he signed af­ter two days a credit card bill that took ef­fect nine months later and con­tained a con­tro­ver­sial pro­vi­sion al­low­ing guns in some na­tional parks.

Mr. Harper cited the stim­u­lus pack­age as an early ex­am­ple of when ad­di­tional time for pub­lic re­view of leg­is­la­tion would have been ben­e­fi­cial. It was later learned that the law con­tained a much-crit­i­cized pro­vi­sion that ef­fec­tively pro­tected bonuses for ex­ec­u­tives at the fal­ter­ing in­sur­ance gi­ant Amer­i­can In­ter­na­tional Group Inc. de­spite a mas­sive tax­payer bailout.

Mr. Shapiro would not com­ment on whether the pol­icy to link to a bill as it is on its way to the pres­i­dent’s desk still ex­tends to emer­gency leg­is­la­tion.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Obama has fallen short re­peat­edly on his cam­paign prom­ise to have all bills Congress sends him posted and open for com­ments for at least five days be­fore he de­cides to sign them.

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