GOP Slash-and-Burn Targets Data Openness

April 6, 2011

One of the biggest advances in public information since President Obama took office is the burgeoning of data put online about what the federal government is up to. Watchdogs love this. The administration calls it the "Open Government Initiative" and virtually every agency has a new data-disclosure website.

So watchdogs were alarmed last week that the GOP "budget-cutting" campaign had squarely targeted OpenGov data programs in order to fund tax cuts for billionaires.

Actually, media watchdogs had barely noticed in February, when the first fiscal year 2011 budget bill passed by the newly Republican House cut to almost nothing the funds for Obama open-gov programs like Data.gov, USASpending.gov, and online citizen participation.

But it did not escape the sharp-eyed Daniel Schuman, who reported it on the Sunlight Foundation's blog. And kept reporting.  

By April 4, Sunlight had organized an open letter to Congressional leaders, urging them to abandon the cuts — signed by at least 13 watchdog organizations and over 2,100 individuals.

By April 6, as this publication went to "press," Congressional Republicans appeared to be backing off somewhat. But the problem was that nobody really knew whether there would be a deal — much less what the terms of the deal would be.

There were a couple of deep ironies here. One is that the purpose of programs like USASpending.gov is to keep taxpayers vigilant about wasteful government spending, and that its paltry cost is dwarfed by budget bloat. So much for vigilance and trimming waste.

The other irony is that House Republicans are cutting the vigilance funds largely out of public view. These features of the budget-cutting bills are hardly featured in press releases. The bills come out so quickly that their details blur. And we have only rumors and spin to inform us about the quite-private negotiations between Dems and GOPers, GOPers and Teabaggers, or Congress and White House. Congress itself has long been immune from open-government standards. This has been the case under both parties for as long as anyone living can remember.

Stay tuned.