The Lack of Transparency With the Government Shutdown

by Jennifer L. Crull

During the government shutdown, the media reported to us about how barricades were placed around the World War II Monument to keep veterans from visiting their monument during their Honor Flights to Washington, D.C. Additionally, national parks were closed, the Amber Alert system was down, and government Websites were completely suspended with visitors being greeted with a page informing them the site had been removed. At no time during the previous seventeen government shutdowns since the mid-1970s did we see the steps we saw taken during this government shutdown. The media was on overload with updating us from one minute to the next about the status of events concerning the shutdown. Also, during this period the majority of people were actually tuned into what Congress was discussing concerning the budget process. So for a change the majority was listening and reading about what our government was up to.

Yet, during this shutdown there was much less information and transparency in place for the media and the people to access the information they needed about Congress. Today, the Internet has allowed us to access a large amount of data and provided us with the tools to process the data whether it is truthful or not! We have come to rely on the ability to “Google” whatever we are looking for. So during the government shutdown, why would government agencies remove entire Websites during the administration of the President who has constantly campaigned on the issue of transparency, when this was a move that removed transparency?

First and foremost would be the removal of several government Websites that people use regularly for information and statistics. Included in those removed were Websites used to see what Congress is discussing and to view the Bureau of Labor’s stats on monthly job reports. The lack of transparency really comes down to the question of “why did some government agencies remove their entire site and other departments just post that the site wouldn’t be updated during the shutdown?” It seems that some departments were being petty during this government shutdown. A few of the sites unavailable during the shutdown were:

• Bureau of Economic Analysis (bea.gov)
• Business.gov
• Census.gov
• Copyright.gov
• Disability.gov
• Library of Congress (loc.gov)
• ERIC (eric.ed.gov)
• FCC.gov
• NASA.gov
• NIMH.gov[1]

During the government shutdown, people were looking to get the facts and straight information without the spin from the normal media paparazzi, which was impossible! During the shutdown the only parts of the government that seemed to be working overtime were those issuing press releases from both parties about how they had a plan to end the shutdown and press conferences by the President concerning what he was willing to negotiate on or who was really to blame for the issue of the day. But if you took the time to call your elected official about the shutdown, you mostly were greeted with a recording, which would allow you to leave a message.[2] Yet, if you wanted to actually talk to your elected official, you would have to physically be on the “Hill” to talk in person.[3] That doesn’t work well for the common person, who is upset about the government shutdown or frustrated with how elected officials were behaving.

Most people reading this would say, “but the government was shut down.” “When the shutdown started, some 800,000 federal employees were sent home on unpaid furlough, but within a week the Defense Department called back to work about 350,000 of them.”[4] Therefore less than 500,000 employees were on furlough with the federal government, which means that only 22 percent of federal employees continued to be on furlough during the whole government shutdown. So with that, the question being asked is “what is the government up to?” We don’t know, because Freedom of Information Act requests are not being processed. Along with that the Federal Election Commission will not be providing services. These are disturbances to an average person.

Another area where transparency is greatly lacking is in the bill that was passed and signed by President Obama to end the government shutdown. While we know the basics of this bill, there are some key issues that were tacked on that bill that really speak to the issue of transparency in government:

• An Ohio River dam project saw its budget increased from $700 million to $2.9 billion.
• The family of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who passed away in June, was guaranteed a $174,000 death gratuity, the equivalent of a year’s salary. Roll Call listed the Senator among Congress’s 50 richest members in 2012.
• Colorado was pledged $450 million for rebuilding after floods that hit the Rocky Mountain foothills in September.[5]

As we well know, the deal to end the shutdown and increase the debt limit passed very quickly; therefore, it wasn’t possible to allow the American public the opportunity to review the legislation that was being proposed. So, while many people were happy the government shutdown was over, there are many lasting effects of the bill that ended the government shutdown.

Now that the government has returned to operating status, the Websites have been returned to operating status, monuments are open, the national parks are open for visitors, and the Amber Alert system is operating, we think we can breathe a sigh of relief that things are back to normal. However, our national debt is continuing to grow and even with a temporary fix, we still don’t really have a budget in place for the government.

Obviously, “without a budget, government is failing in its core responsibilities to the public, including the responsibility to let the public know what it’s up to.”[6] So I hope that each one of you remember this when it comes time to vote next year. It is important to vote for people that understand the importance of transparency and don’t make decisions that are petty. Open-air monuments being barricaded off was a petty decision that our President made. We need a government that allows the taxpayers to really see how their tax dollars are being spent.

(Endnotes)
[1] Search of the Internet during the government shutdown provided the various Websites unavailable during this shutdown. Search conducted on October 2-4, 2013.
[2] Matt Berman and Patrick Reis, “The Government Shutdown Is Terrible for Transparency,” NationalJournal.com, October 3, 2013, <http://www.nationaljournal.com/congress/the-government-shutdown-is-terrible-for-transparency-20131003> accessed on October 21, 2013.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Eric Yoder, “Furloughed employees typically would return on day after shutdown ends,” Washingtonpost.com, October 16, 2013, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/federal-eye/wp/2013/10/16/furloughed-employees-typically-would-return-on-day-after-shutdown-ends/> accessed on October 18, 2013.
[5] Geoff Holtzman, “Deal To End Shutdown Violated Transparency Promises From Both Parties,” TalkRadioNews.com, October 18, 2013, < http://www.talkradionews.com/congress/2013/10/18/deal-to-end-shutdown-violated-transparency-promises-from-both-parties.html> accessed on October 21, 2013.
[6] Matt Berman and Patrick Reis.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

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