Our View: Obama's Cabinet mostly closed
The day after he was inaugurated, President Barack Obama pledged to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government." He launched his Open Government Initiative, with its own website: whitehouse.gov/open.
The latest indication of how he has failed to live up to that pledge was revealed in a study by Bloomberg news service, "Untangling FOIA: An Analysis of Obama's Open-Government Pledge." FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act, which guarantees Americans access to their government's documents. The FOIA mandates a response within 20 days for requests of administration travel documents. Bloomberg asked for the cost of travel by Cabinet secretaries and other top department officials.
This is important because citizens need to know if these officials are being frugal and traveling only for official business, or jetting around at the taxpayers' expense. Even if the president wins in November, some of these officials probably may be leaving soon, meaning that future disclosures won't mean much.
Of 20 Cabinet-level offices, only one responded on time — Karen Mills, administrator of the Small Business Administration. Five others responded, though late. They included Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, a former California state legislator, in 28 days; Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, 43 days; and Gary Locke (2009-11) and Rebecca Blank, the president's two secretaries of commerce, both in 45 days.
The officials not responding at all included most of the heavy-hitters in the administration: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successor, Leon Panetta; Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose authority is greatly expanded under the Affordable Care Act; Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., recently found in contempt of Congress for failing to disclose enough information in the Operation Fast and Furious scandal; and Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu, who was in charge when California solar-panel maker Solyndra blew $550 million in the taxpayers' money, then went bankrupt.
"Transparency is the most important thing the government can engage in to enhance public trust," said Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "One of the things the president mandated on coming into office was acting promptly on FOIA requests. This is of concern because it should not be difficult for people to see what's going on in government. The FOIA was put in place for people to know what's going on in terms of spending and policy."
Nadler has worked on the House Ways and Means Committee. She said that, based on her experience there, lower-level officials commonly fill out FOIA reports. But the person at the top is responsible for making sure the FOIA requests are met.
The problem with stonewalling the requests is that the public trust is damaged. "The default position for many people is that the officials must be hiding something," she said. "I don't know if that's true.
But the lack of disclosure is troubling, whether it's a city council member or a Cabinet member. The public has a right to know."
We hope this issue is brought up at Wednesday's first presidential debate, as well as the Operation Fast and Furious contempt citation. Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz recently found "no evidence" Mr. Holder knew of the scheme to sell guns to Mexican drug lords, which led to the deaths of 300 Mexicans and US Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry. Yet Holder still refuses to release crucial documents.