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Transparency, stimulus, transition and Change.gov

President-elect Obama has promised an unprecedented degree of transparency in the debate on the economic stimulus bill, saying in last Thursday's economic address at George Mason University, "Instead of politicians doling out money behind a veil of secrecy, decisions about where we invest will be made transparently, and informed by independent experts wherever possible. Every American will be able to hold Washington accountable for these decisions by going online to see how and where their tax dollars are being spent."

Excellent intention, but the promise may be harder to keep than the Obama team realizes. We've been looking at Change.gov, the transition site, and its "Your Seat at the Table" transparency project, which is supposed to include citations and documents of all the meetings the transition team has had with outside groups. (See this Washington Post story.) But is every meeting actually annotated? And are the significant meetings and documents being lost in the uploading of everything the public sends in? We'd guess no and yes, in that order.

Put the term "legal" into the search box and you get 11 items (as of Sunday, 4 p.m.), including this headline: Economic Stimulus Meeting. Well, that's not terribly informative. Click on the link, and you see a list of Hispanic activist groups and their representatives who attended, but no documents. Same thing with this: LGBT Leaders Meeting. The names and affiliations of 38 people, and that's it. (Thirty-eight people? You have a productive meeting with that?) Yet this meeting -- Environmental Justice Meeting -- with another lengthy attendance list of lefty legal and environmental activists doesn't show up. You have to search "justice" to find that entry.

Now, search for the term "law" and you get 42 results, including this title: Overview of Corporate Immunity from Lawsuits. The link brings up just a posted document, with no name or affiliation attached. The document is a memo, i.e., lengthy screed, attacking the pharmaceutical industry and the Bush Administration's support for preemption, but from whom? Well, we recognized the inflammatory language as coming from the American Association for Justice (this document especially), but you'd have to be awfully conversant with preemption to get the connection. Transparency falls way short.

The point here is not to knock the Obama transition team or the vows to strive for transparency on economic stimulus or earmarks. It's just to say a great deal is being promised, and it will take significant resources to fulfill those promises. And sometimes too much information, disorganized information, works against transparency.

And, boy, are there a lot of meetings with legal groups and activists.

Speaking of which, the documents from the ascendant American Constitution Society for Law and Policy are here.  The word "Federalist" produces no search results.

Afterthought (4:50 p.m.): Obvious point we failed to mention: The documents we've looked at don't state whom these groups met with, that is, who from the transition team was there. For transparency in decision-making to mean anything, you really need to know whether it was a junior staffer or a major figure in the incoming Administration.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Katherine Lazarski
Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.