Transparency is a cornerstone of democracy. The people have a fundamental right to see how their elected representatives choose to spend their tax dollars and how they came up with these decisions. A recent effort by the Trump Administration to reduce transparency in defense spending has some members of Congress up in arms. While we agree with them, more importantly taxpayers should use this instance as a call to action to demand more transparency from both branches of government.
When signing the latest Pentagon policy bill (National Defense Authorization Act), President Trump included a five-page signing statement. Signing statements aren’t new. Presidents use them to assert their interpretation of the law or challenges to provisions within the law and how they would be administered. This action picked up significantly under President Reagan and has been used by every president since. But this one is a doozy. President Trump, mostly citing constitutional concerns, states the Pentagon will not conduct dozens of reports that the bill mandates they make. Everything from reports on treaties relating to arms control, cyberwarfare capabilities and the legal and policy frameworks for using force, to reports on Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Russian interference in elections. Some critical reports, some politically sensitive, some likely embarrassing, but all mandated by the legislative text (aka the law) of the NDAA. Despite signing the legislation into law, the president says, no dice.
Congress should be up in arms, and work to get these reports completed, but they should also use this as an opportunity for self-reflection. Congress routinely requests reports from administrative agencies. Binders full of report requests. But there is often no requirement the reports be made public. Typically, they aren’t. All it would take is for the administration to cc taxpayers on the transmission or publish them online. Even more absurdly, often the committee Chairs that receive these reports don’t even share them with other members of Congress including their fellow committee members!
The Trump Administration, and every future presidential administration, needs to do what the laws tells them to do. The law is the law, we all must live with it – a Democratic House and a Senate controlled by Republicans came to an agreement on this. The president signed it. If these reports were so onerous, violating the constitution, he should have vetoed it. The Executive Branch and Congress routinely disagree, that is not unique to this presidency. Disagreements on policy, disagreements on principle, on the direction the country is taking, you name it. These debates play out in the media, on the House Floor, and even in the courts. Lost in this cacophony, however, is the fact that transparency works.
When, in her first stint as Speaker, Nancy Pelosi required members of Congress publicly disclose all their earmark requests, not just the earmarks that made it into legislation, a wealth of information was unleashed. The public could see the universe of requests, what made the cut and what didn’t, which members were discerning, and which ones simply forwarded every request they received. It opened a window into the process and put members on notice that the public was watching. Transparency requirements attached to the 2009 stimulus spending bill resulted in recovery.gov, where the public could track tax dollars expended under the bill. You could argue whether something was a waste of money or not, but at least everyone could see where it was spent. It led to a degree of spending transparency in stark contrast to the billion-dollar black holes we typically see in “emergency” spending bills like the Superstorm Sandy Supplemental or Hurricane Harvey cash.
So yes, Congress should demand the Trump Administration do the work the law requires, while also leading by example. Congress took an important step and made the reports of its own internal research arm (Congressional Research Service) open to the public. Now they need to work on giving taxpayers access to the economic models, assumptions, and calculations the Congressional Budget Office uses to estimate the costs or savings of legislation. Congress should make every report it receives from an agency immediately and easily accessible to the public. And they should push the administration to be more open by requiring that the annual Presidential Budget Request process include the creation of a public, easily accessible, central location for every agency’s budget justification.
The Trump Administration’s hostility to transparency in defense spending is appalling. But it’s not the only place taxpayers deserve more information on how our elected representatives are managing our money. Congress needs to take steps to ensure the administration is managing taxpayer resources in the national interest. They can do this by leading by example.