Commentary Magazine


Topic: transparency

Grading Congress: A Bipartisan Failure

“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

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“The least-productive Congress in modern history drew to an abrupt close late Tuesday,” the Washington Post reports, echoing the conventional wisdom about this Congress: it’s terrible because of how rarely it legislates its nosy way further into your life. Yet this is also a good opportunity to point out that while this narrative is wrong in how it measures the value of a Congress, it’s not completely wrong. That is, an un-legislating Congress is not as inactive as it seems, and this tends to fool not only the left but also limited-government conservatives as well.

First, the obvious. Passing few laws is better than passing bad laws. Grading a Congress by how “productive” it was would be like grading a war by how many bombs were dropped. As the legislative branch, Congress should have goals. Those goals should not be numerical, and members of Congress should not be engaged in federal busywork. Yesterday, CBS’s White House correspondent Mark Knoller tweeted out some last-minute governing done by Congress and the president. For example, he tweeted: “By Act of Congress and Presidential Proclamation, tomorrow is Wright Brothers Day.”

According to the media’s scorecard, this Congress would have been better had it used every day of the year to make such proclamations. We wouldn’t even need a classical calendar anymore: “The president is scheduled to attend a fundraiser this coming Led Zeppelin Day, followed by a speech in Iowa on Dunkin Donuts Iced Dark Roast Blend Day.” Thanks Congress!

And though it wasn’t an act of Congress, a second proclamation was noted by Knoller: “Also by presidential proclamation, today marks the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge.” If there is anything that so ably demonstrates the obsessive delusions of the governing class, it is that basic math now must be affirmed by presidential proclamation.

We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, legislating for its own sake. On a more serious note, bad legislation results in far worse than such proclamations. As I and others have noted, the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of police came about because he was engaged in commerce in a market created by the government’s nanny-state regulations run amok. (As James Taranto points out, while liberals initially scoffed at this plain truth it appears Mayor Bill de Blasio “implicitly” acknowledges it.)

Another example: studies show mandatory calorie counts in restaurants are ineffective in changing eating habits, but Reason magazine this week drew attention to “the deleterious effect of this mandate on the estimated twenty million women and ten million men who struggle with eating disorders during their lifetimes (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, and Hudson, 2011). For those working toward recovery, this policy impedes a foundational part of their efforts.”

The government’s “just do something” instincts often take the form of experimenting on the citizenry. They usually turn out to be bad laws, poorly conceived and detrimental to the people. But they stay on the books. We don’t need a Congress that believes it has a responsibility to legislate as an end in itself.

However: a total lack of legislating can have deleterious effects on the effort to keep government limited and transparent as well. As the Economist noted last year in an article on the wordiness and complexity of modern laws:

As the number of new laws has fallen, their average length has increased (see chart). Because relatively few bills pass, a congressman with a proposal will often try to hitch it to an unrelated must-pass bill. When 500 lawmakers do this at once, the result is laws that make “War and Peace” look like a haiku. …

If longer bills were merely a byproduct of cleaner government, that would be a reason to celebrate. But they also reflect a more open form of corruption. Complex systems reward those who know how to navigate them. Over the past decade, Washington has added more households whose income puts them in the top 1% than any other city in America. Many of them made money from government contracting in the defence and security boom the (sic) followed September 11th 2001. But plenty made their money lobbying to slip clauses that benefit their clients into mega-bills that no one can be bothered to read. Long laws suit them rather well.

The Economist puts some of the blame on the anti-earmark crusade, which removed one tool for lawmakers to corral votes, especially from those on the other side of the aisle. But even aside from that issue and the one of lobbying, it remains a fact that–as conservatives rightly point out–there are very few “must-pass” bills.

This is one way to create a Cromnibus. Shoving a year’s worth of legislating into one bill isn’t limited government. It’s binge governing. Liberals are wrong to assume that the number of bills passed by a Congress tells you how valuable that Congress has been. But conservatives make a similar mistake. A year’s worth of legislating is a year’s worth of legislating, no matter how you slice it. And if you’re going to do such an amount of lawmaking, it’s far better to do so in pieces, when there is transparency and debate on what is actually being voted on.

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A Complex Issue and a Simplistic Snowden

The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

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The Washington Post’s interview with Edward Snowden is bound to evoke complicated, on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other responses–a complexity that contrasts sharply with Snowden’s own simplistic, shallow conception of the issues at play. And it is this contrast that leaves those skeptical of massive government programs ultimately still in search of an advocate worthy of the cause of transparency, for Edward Snowden is not that advocate.

On the one hand, those seeking to defend the NSA’s domestic digital intelligence collection point out that, as Michael Mukasey notes today, the members of the president’s intel review board “have not uncovered any official efforts to suppress dissent or any intent to intrude into people’s private lives without legal justification.” On the other hand, critics of big government are on plenty firm ground when they say they should not be required to await abuse to argue, on principle, against secretive programs ripe for such abuse. The prevention of abuse of power, not simply the correction of abuse of power, is a legitimate goal for a self-governing people.

But is that Edward Snowden’s goal? The overwhelming evidence would suggest it is manifestly not. In fact, Snowden’s interview, for those who could sit through the messianic self-aggrandizing delusions, was most revealing in Snowden’s clear distaste for the very concept of democracy. An argument can be made that the system of checks and balances surrounding the NSA program is insufficiently skeptical toward the means because of governmental deference to the ends. But it remains the case that the American people have elected representatives, to whom Snowden did not first go with this information, despite there being obviously sympathetic members of Congress (Ron Wyden, Rand Paul, etc.).

Additionally, the intel collection has legal oversight and its constitutionality has been challenged and upheld. Again, this doesn’t mean the process is flawless–conservatives consider some laws to be unconstitutional despite the high court’s acquiescence. But compare that with Snowden’s response when his interviewer, Barton Gellman–one of the journalists through whom Snowden has been leaking his information–asks him about his sense of authority and entitlement:

“That whole question — who elected you? — inverts the model,” he said. “They elected me. The overseers.”

He named the chairmen of the Senate and House intelligence committees.

“Dianne Feinstein elected me when she asked softball questions” in committee hearings, he said. “Mike Rogers elected me when he kept these programs hidden. . . . The FISA court elected me when they decided to legislate from the bench on things that were far beyond the mandate of what that court was ever intended to do. The system failed comprehensively, and each level of oversight, each level of responsibility that should have addressed this, abdicated their responsibility.”

“It wasn’t that they put it on me as an individual — that I’m uniquely qualified, an angel descending from the heavens — as that they put it on someone, somewhere,” he said. “You have the capability, and you realize every other [person] sitting around the table has the same capability but they don’t do it. So somebody has to be the first.”

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn from Snowden’s answer. Either he is a deeply unintelligent man with a tenuous grasp on reality, or he is a deeply dishonest man brimming with hostility toward Western democracy. That he accomplished what he did and now lives under the watchful gaze of the Russian security services suggests that the latter is far more likely. That’s not to say there isn’t also evidence for the former theory–witness his choice of historical analogy:

Snowden likened the NSA’s powers to those used by British authorities in Colonial America, when “general warrants” allowed for anyone to be searched. The FISA court, Snowden said, “is authorizing general warrants for the entire country’s metadata.”

“The last time that happened, we fought a war over it,” he said.

The comparison is historically illiterate and the conclusion asinine. Nonetheless, it fits with his pattern of dishonesty and self-promotion. He’s also a hypocrite: he claims to be for transparency, but has given his interview to a friendly and cooperative source, and even then he declines to answer certain questions about his own activity and the materials he possesses. He claims to be for the rule of law, but eschewed legal channels for his activity in favor of breaking the law and then evaded the legal consequences with the help of authoritarian, criminal regimes. He claims to want a discussion about domestic spying, but revealed damaging information about American spying abroad.

There is plenty, in other words, Edward Snowden is not telling us, and what he is telling us undermines his hollow attempts to claim the dignified posture of a whistleblower. There are troubling aspects to the NSA’s data collection, and an honest argument about transparency and security might keep that trouble at bay. But Snowden is not an honest messenger and he is not conducting an honest discussion. The American people, and the cause of transparency and limited government, deserve better than Edward Snowden.

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Obama’s Swearing-in Ceremony Closed to the Press?

Politico reports that Obama’s second inaugural oath for the “most transparent administration in history” might be administered privately, without any media present (h/t Morning Jolt):

“Mindful of the historic nature of this occasion, we expect the White House will continue the long tradition of opening the President’s official swearing-in to full press access, and we as an organization are looking forward to working with the administration to make that happen,” Ed Henry, the Fox News correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in a statement.

Because inauguration day falls on a Sunday in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts will officially administer the official oath of office in a private ceremony that day. The public inauguration on the Capitol Building’s West Front — at which Roberts will administer a second, symbolic oath of office — will take place the next day. 

In early meetings with the inaugural committee, officials privately indicated to reporters that the Jan. 20 event could be closed to reporters and cameras, with an official photograph supplied to press by White House photographer Pete Souza, sources familiar with the meeting told POLITICO.

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Politico reports that Obama’s second inaugural oath for the “most transparent administration in history” might be administered privately, without any media present (h/t Morning Jolt):

“Mindful of the historic nature of this occasion, we expect the White House will continue the long tradition of opening the President’s official swearing-in to full press access, and we as an organization are looking forward to working with the administration to make that happen,” Ed Henry, the Fox News correspondent and president of the White House Correspondents Association, said in a statement.

Because inauguration day falls on a Sunday in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts will officially administer the official oath of office in a private ceremony that day. The public inauguration on the Capitol Building’s West Front — at which Roberts will administer a second, symbolic oath of office — will take place the next day. 

In early meetings with the inaugural committee, officials privately indicated to reporters that the Jan. 20 event could be closed to reporters and cameras, with an official photograph supplied to press by White House photographer Pete Souza, sources familiar with the meeting told POLITICO.

The White House Correspondents Association has reason to be concerned. While Obama’s second oath of office in 2009 (if you remember, he had to do it twice) wasn’t completely closed to the media, only four reporters were allowed to attend, writes Dylan Byers.

This issue seems more about principle than anything else, since Obama hasn’t exactly followed through on his vow to run a more transparent administration. It’s about time the press finally started calling him out on it. Maybe now that he’s won reelection the media will actually do its job and report critically on his presidency. At the very least this is a sign he’s not going to get the kid-gloves treatment he had during the election season.

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Obama Caves to Pressure, Releases DMR Interview

President Obama has released a transcript of his interview with the Des Moines Register, after the paper complained that he refused to do the interview on-the-record. From the DMR editor:

Typically, these visits are an opportunity for us to ask questions, get details on platforms and positions and to contrast each opponent’s views. These exchanges are weighed when our five-member editorial board – which also relies heavily on independent and extensive research — meets and drafts our endorsement editorial.

Romney appeared before our board Oct. 9. We literally met in a barn on a family farm owned by Jeff Koch, just west of Van Meter. …

But the audio was digitally recorded and posted on DesMoinesRegister.com.

We repeatedly — and politely — have asked Obama 2012 campaign officials in Iowa and Chicago for the same access to the president. I believe it earned serious consideration. But despite at least 28 campaign stops and 11 days in our state, we never could convince his team to carve out a few moments for our editorial board — in our office, on the trail or even in a barn somewhere in Iowa.

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President Obama has released a transcript of his interview with the Des Moines Register, after the paper complained that he refused to do the interview on-the-record. From the DMR editor:

Typically, these visits are an opportunity for us to ask questions, get details on platforms and positions and to contrast each opponent’s views. These exchanges are weighed when our five-member editorial board – which also relies heavily on independent and extensive research — meets and drafts our endorsement editorial.

Romney appeared before our board Oct. 9. We literally met in a barn on a family farm owned by Jeff Koch, just west of Van Meter. …

But the audio was digitally recorded and posted on DesMoinesRegister.com.

We repeatedly — and politely — have asked Obama 2012 campaign officials in Iowa and Chicago for the same access to the president. I believe it earned serious consideration. But despite at least 28 campaign stops and 11 days in our state, we never could convince his team to carve out a few moments for our editorial board — in our office, on the trail or even in a barn somewhere in Iowa.

The actual interview is a dull rehash of the usual campaign spin, but Obama’s media strategy is revealing. Why not go on the record for an editorial interview? It’s standard. Refusing makes it look like Obama’s worried about getting hit with a tough question, either by DMR or another newspaper. If the president stayed off-the-record for the Register’s editorial board interview, what other papers has he done the same with? Is this a general rule for the campaign?

Obama got the benefit of a one-on-one conversation with editors he wants an endorsement from, but didn’t have to take any of the risk. Agreeing to release the interview transcript after the fact (and only after DMR complained), means nothing. He knew the interview was all softballs after it was over, but obviously couldn’t have predicted that beforehand. Journalists might want to keep this is mind next time Obama touts his record of transparency or accuses his opponent of being less than upfront.

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