How Transparent Is Too Transparent, Oversight Committee Asks

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Federal spending data, White House visitor logs and presidential tax returns were all the subject of a Congressional discussion on government openness.

Is the public entitled to know who visits the White House? What would they even do with that information?

Those were just a couple of the many questions a Congressional oversight committee attempted to tackle during a transparency-themed hearing Thursday, which meandered from legislation that would require federal agencies to publish their spending data to whether the president should be required to disclose his tax returns. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held the hearing close to Sunshine Week, a week in March during which reporters and open government advocates annually promote transparency issues. 

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The committee touched on the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, which would require agencies to publish their spending data online; the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, which directs the Government Accountability Office to audit the Federal Reserve and remove exemptions for certain information; and the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Open Records Act of 2017, which would make both federal mortgage programs subject to the Freedom of Information Act during certain periods. The committee also discussed the Presidential Tax Transparency Act introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., that would require presidential nominees to disclose their tax returns. 

Here are some takeaways from that conversation:

Some lawmakers worry opening the Fed up to public scrutiny could destabilize the economy. 

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said she supported the Presidential Tax Returns Act but strongly opposed legislation that could "seriously undermine the independence of the Federal Reserve." The GAO is already able to audit the Fed, she said, except for certain topics including that group's monetary policy decision-making. Changing that could "cause the markets to lose confidence in the Fed's ability to conduct sound monetary policy," she argued. 

The committee is very interested in publishing federal data online.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, plans to reintroduce the OPEN Government Data Act, which would require agencies to publish the data they collect online and in a machine-readable format. 

“We have no idea what information we’ll be able to glean out of this—how the government might be able to save money, what new inventions might be coming, what scientific advances may happen," he said.

The DATA Act, requiring agencies to publish their spending data online, is approaching its first major milestone in 47 days, at which point agencies are supposed to be in compliance. 

There's a movement to make the White House logs more transparent. 

Asked what they might add to Farenthold's bill, witness Richard Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, suggested requiring the White House and federal agencies to publish their visitor logs. 

Barack Obama's White House had been updating a public log online, but since Trump has taken office, that site now reads: "This page is being updated. It will post records of White House visitors on an ongoing basis, once they become available."

But not everyone agrees that information is critical. 

Asked whether he thought that information would be important, Hudson Hollister, head of the Data Coalition, an advocacy group that has promoted the DATA Act, said he supported them but that "these logs are going to be of limited usefulness. A lot of meetings take place in the coffee shops in the area ... the decisions and the operations and particularly the money."

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