1. 29 July

    Making Whistleblowing Work

    Whistleblowing was the subject of an event hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency in July 2011. The discussion focused on reforming current law and finding ways to encourage and protect federal whistleblowers. In the end there was consensus that federal whistleblower protections must be strengthened, whistleblowing must be encouraged, and government must change the way that it handles reports of fraud and abuse. Whistleblowers serve an important role in protecting worker safety, improving government efficiency, and saving taxpayer money.

    Carolyn Lerner, the recently confirmed head of the Office of Special Counsel, led off the discussion, describing OSC as providing a safe channel for federal government employees to report waste. Before Lerner’s confirmation the OSC had gone through turbulent times and been without Senate-confirmed leadership for two and a half years. Lerner made clear that her goal was to bring the OSC back into good standing. She stressed that employees are the best way to identify waste and fraud and save the government money and time, and encouraged Congress to pass a strong whistleblower protection law.

    The next speaker was Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project on Government Oversight. She stressed that a serious discussion about government waste requires talking about making whistleblowing work. She suggested financial incentives as a way to make whistleblowing more appealing, using the False Claims Act as an example. The act allows citizens to file a claim when they know the government is being “ripped off” and has helped the government save around $22 billion since 1987. Canterbury concluded by noting that Congress has taken important steps to protect whistleblowers in the private sector; the same must be done for their federal counterparts.

    Christian Sanchez, a federal whistleblower and the third panelist, made very clear that many federal whistleblowers face reprisals at work and the potential for prosecution. Sanchez, an agent with Customs Border Protection, never thought he would be a whistleblower. But he spoke up when his station, located in a low incident area along the northern border, expanded even though there was not enough work to go around. Retaliation included interrogation, harassment at work and home, and loss of duties.

    The final panelist was Micah Sifry, a senior technology adviser to Sunlight Foundation, who underlined calls for robust funding of whistleblower protections and agencies dedicated to rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse. His remarks focused on ways that the internet and social media are changing how information is shared, revealed, and used. He argued that governments need to accept that there are many things they will no longer be able to hide. We are entering an age of mass participation that will see more citizen oversight of government. Government, Sifry argued, should be focused on embracing this new way of life instead of resisting it.

    The event was moderated by Daniel Schuman, Director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, and emphasized the importance of federal whistleblowers and ways to promote a more robust whistleblowing culture.

    Thank you to Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey for writing this summary of the event.

    View video of the event below.

  2. 13 June

    The Hidden Budget: Tax Expenditures

    Tax expenditures were the subject of an Advisory Committee on Transparency event in June. Although they make up the equivalent of one quarter of the federal budget, there is a lot of mystery around this type of hidden spending in the tax code.

    Tom Hungerford, a CRS analysis who has written extensively about tax expenditures, provided the technical definition of a tax expenditure while focusing his remarks on how just a few tax exemptions – such as the mortgage credit – account for nearly 70 percent of expenditures. He described the rise of tax expenditures as a significant portion of the federal budget and identified recent attempts to rein in this spending.

    Lori Metcalf, who helped build Subsidyscope – a tax expenditure database for the Pew Charitable Trusts – explained the difficulty of figuring out exactly how much money the government spends through tax expenditures. She highlighted specific problems related to accessing data spread across government websites and extracting it from non-machine-readable PDFs. The government only makes estimates about tax expenditures available without keeping track of how accurate these estimates are.

    Jason Feinberg, a legislative assistant for Rep. Quigley, highlighted legislative efforts such as the Transparency and Sustainable Budget Act of 2011 aimed at addressing the difficulty of tracking tax expenditures. He described how tax expenditures are often less scrutinized by Congress even though they frequently dwarf their directed spending counterparts.

    Eric Toder, a fellow at the Urban Institute, explained that many tax expenditures provide funding for popular programs such as subsidies for new technology and the home mortgage credit. He said that programs such as these are not necessarily wasteful and should not be eliminated outright. He advocated for a comprehensive approach to addressing tax expenditures that involves evaluating each provision based on its own merit.

    William Beach, Director of the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation, emphasized the importance of fairness in the tax code and provided a graphicdemonstrating how tax expenditures have unevenly distributed the tax burden. He also argued for a comprehensive reform plan, pointing out that the problem cannot be solved by merely separating individual and corporate tax breaks.

    The event was moderated by Daniel Schuman, Director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, and emphasized the problem of a lack of transparency and accountability with regards to tax expenditures as a form of federal spending.

    Event Handouts

    • Event Flier PDF
    • Dear Colleague Letter – Rep. John Tierney (MA-06) PDF
    • Tax Expenditure Legislation and Reports – Rep. Mike Quigley (IL-05) PDF
    • PEW Subsidy Scope Tax Expenditure Database PDF
    • Marginal Tax Rate Graphic – Bill Beach, Heritage Foundation PDF

    Resources:

    View video of the event below:

  3. 09 May

    The Future of CRS

    The Congressional Research Service was the subject of an event hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency in May 2011. The event examined the present and future of CRS after the retirement of Dan Mulhollan, who served as its director for 17 years.

    Nye Stevens, retired deputy director of CRS’ Government and Finance division, began by describing the basic functions of CRS. According to Stevens, CRS views itself exclusively as a Congressional support agency with a confidential relationship to the legislative branch. CRS products are aimed at educating Congressional staff on the facts of an issue and they generally avoid taking explicit stances. CRS experts, Stevens noted, have excellent academic credentials, but are not necessarily versed in public policy analysis. CRS spends most of its time doing research for, and educating, congressional staff who are not experts in a particular area.

    Mike Stern, a former senior counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, refuted three legal arguments that are often cited by the CRS to justify keeping its reports out of the public domain. First, he asserted that releasing all of the reports would have little practical impact, because many are already released. Second, he claimed that CRS would not be open to liability, because their reports are fact based and rarely enter into territory that could be litigious. Finally, he argued that final reports could be released without exposing the sources and methodology behind them, because CRS has certain protections as a congressional support agency.

    Robyn Russell, a Legislative Assistant for Congressman Mike Quigley (D-Ill), gave a congressional staffer’s perspective on CRS. She said that she often uses CRS to do research and answer constituent requests. According to Russell, many CRS reports are available to the public for purchase through third party providers online, but should be accessible for free. Representative Quigley introduced legislation to achieve this goal. Russell recognized that concerns may exist within CRS and made it clear that Quigley’s office would be happy to work with the agency to alleviate any problems.

    Steve Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, argued that Mulhollan’s retirement provides a rare opportunity to rethink CRS’ management and strategy. He identified three major areas for reform. First, he suggested that CRS hire new Senior Specialists in order to replenish their deepest levels of subject matter expertise. Second, he argued that CRS should be more opinionated. The agency is staffed by experts, congress could benefit from their honest opinions. Finally, he reiterated that CRS reports should be publicly available.

    The event was moderated by Daniel Schuman, director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, and emphasized the need to make CRS reports more easily available to the general public.

    (This event was rescheduled from April)

  4. 11 April

    The Future of CRS — postponed to May

    Rescheduled to May 9, 2011. Follow this link for more information.

  5. 14 March

    Washington’s Lobbying Fix

    The challenges of monitoring lobbying were the subject of an event hosted by the Advisory Committee on Transparency in March 2011, entitled Washington’s Lobbying Fix.

    Dan Eggen, a staff writer at the Washington Post, kicked off the discussion by expressing his desire to see stronger lobbying disclosure rules. He argued that greater transparency would help the majority of lobbyists who are honest and apt to follow the rules by making it easier to identify those who aren’t. He closed his comments by suggesting that reform advocates could look to the Foreign Agents Registration Act for inspiration. The act requires detailed reports about who people are meeting with, what kind of money they are spending, and what kind of work is being done.

    Shelia Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, spoke of four key areas ripe for reform. First, she was concerned that new regulations had led to an increase in lobbyists deregistering. While some of these lobbyists likely left the profession, many more simply went “under the radar” to hide their lobbying activities and avoid registration by taking advantage of loopholes. Second, she argued that requiring specific records of lobbying visits would allow observers to know whether lobbying relationships exist, and make connections between these relationships and possible campaign donations. This led her to advocate for unique lobbyist ID cards or numbers. This would make tracking and collecting lobbyist data easier. Finally, she insisted that the House and Senate follow the same rules and organize their data in the same ways.

    Lisa Rosenberg, a government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, argued that increased disclosure would be good for the public, elected officials, and lobbyists. She said that everyone paid to lobby should be required to report, that lobbyists should report who they meet with and what topics they discuss, and that anyone bundling money for campaigns should also disclose their lobbying activities. She also stressed that real time-online reporting would be convenient and effective, and noted that the Sunlight Foundation has designed a smart phone application to make this possible, thereby minimizing reporting burdens.

    Paul Miller, former president of the American League of Lobbyists, approached the discussion with a different perspective. He was not against the concept of lobbying reform, but was wary of reform proposals that were, in his view, constitutionally questionable, full of loopholes, or would not gain support in congress. He stressed that lobbyists were already the most heavily regulated profession and further reform should be focused on ending “carve outs” to ensure that everyone who participating in lobbying activities actually discloses that fact.

    Tom Susman, director of government affairs at the American Bar Association, expounded on a number of reform proposals recommended by an ABA administrative law task force. First, he argued that expanded disclosure should cover more individuals and entities, and have additional requirements. Second, new rules should prohibit lobbyists from participating in serious campaign fundraising activities, although they would still be allowed to give individually. He also proposed stricter fundraising regulations on those who lobbied for specific earmarks. Finally, he proposed a more serious enforcement regime that would give power to the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.

    The event was moderated by Daniel Schuman, director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency. Check out the Sunlight Foundation’s lobbying reform page for more information.

    Photos from the event are available from the Sunlight Foundation’s flickr account. If you could not attend the event, a video is available for your convenience.

  6. 14 February

    Reforming Congress: The good, the bad, and the ugly

    On Monday, February 14, at 2:30pm in Rayburn 2203, a panel of experts examined the history of efforts to reform Congress, evaluate which aspects of the institution function effectively — and not so effectively — and why, and explain what can be done to help Congress fulfill its constitutional responsibilities.

    Panelists included:

    • Rep. Mickey Edwards
    • Dr. James Thurber
    • Moderator Daniel Schuman

    If you were unable to attend the event in person, watch video below.