On the day Donald Trump was elected president, Judicial Watch signaled its view of the challenges ahead. “President-elect Trump should commit to a transparency revolution,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a congratulatory statement. We pledged to continue our independent investigations and lawsuits to hold politicians of both parties accountable. We have continued to pursue litigation against the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton, bringing new information to light, because the rule of law did not end with the election. And we’ve been pressing President Trump to be more forthcoming on his tax returns, the White House logs and Russia-related documents.
It’s clear that transparency in the Trump era will proceed along multiple tracks. One of the most consequential sunshine experiments in recent history, the Digital Accountability & Transparency Act, is slated to kick into a higher gear next week. May 9 is the deadline for government agencies to provide standardized data for a searchable data base, USAspending.gov.
The DATA Act proposition is truly revolutionary: citizens should be able to closely track how the government is spending their money.
All federal agencies that make contracts, grants and loans are required to participate in the DATA Act. The May 9 launch is sure to be bumpy and several agencies have already informed project managers that they won’t meet the deadline. But the vast information project appears to be on track.
The implications of so much new financial information online and easily searchable are enormous. It’s “follow the money” on steroids, opening up new terrain for policy makers, academics, journalists and entrepreneurs. A more transparent money flow could pave the way for better policies and systems, improved economic performance and business models, and shine a brighter light on waste, fraud and abuse.
The DATA Act is in the pipeline. But a new bill before Congress would create an even more powerful transparency tool. While the DATA Act focuses on spending, the OPEN Government Data Act proposes that all government data—with exceptions for national security, privacy and other concerns—be placed online. The “Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary Government Data Act” (full title) requires that all federal agencies publish their data in an accessible, easily readable open format. It creates a single portal for government data and strips the private sector contractor Dun & Bradstreet of its proprietary hold over public data through control of the current coding system.
How big a deal are the two acts? “In 2016, the federal government took in $3 trillion and spent roughly $3.5 trillion, accounting for over one-fifth of the gross domestic product,” Data Coalition Executive Director Hudson Hollister told the House Oversight Committee in March. “By revenue, that’s bigger than the ten biggest companies in the world combined. Our federal government is not just the largest organization in human history. It is also the most complex.”
$6.5 trillion flowing through government channels generates a lot of waste, misuse and corruption. The DATA Act and OPEN Government Data Act, by providing more access to government information, empowers citizen watchdogs of all stripes. President Trump can give transparency a boost by getting behind these two efforts.
The Trump administration also can use transparency to power up one of its key foreign policy goals: holding the Iran nuclear deal to account. The respected watchdog group Iran Watch, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, recently drew attention to limits on the information on the Iran nuclear deal coming from the International Atomic Energy Commission and the U.N. mandated Joint Commission.
The two groups were supposed to deliver transparency on the deal, but have failed to hold up their end of the bargain, notes an Iran Watch report. “Instead, a sort of diplomatic veil has been drawn around Iran’s nuclear status, obscuring important parts of it from public view. As a result, it is difficult to know whether limits on Iran’s nuclear progress are being maintained and the verification procedures established are functioning properly.”
The Iran Watch report recommends that the Trump administration insist that the IAEA restore reporting to its earlier level of detail. Current reports contain “a fraction of the information it provided in the past.” The Joint Commission, says Iran Watch, should be asked to change its confidential procedures “in favor of transparency on nuclear exemptions granted to Iran, on challenge inspections by the IAEA, and on proposed nuclear sales.”
Increased transparency would let the public see deeply into the Iran deal, as originally promised, and would not require renegotiation of the pact.
Open financial data, open government data, more Iran nuclear deal details—that’s the kind of transparency President Trump can live with.
Now, about those Russian connection documents….
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Send tips and transparency ideas to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: email@example.com