The White House’s Open Government Initiative – President Barack Obama’s directive to for more transparency and public involvement in the often-arcane machinations of the Executive Branch – celebrates its first birthday today. The initiative’s first year has been largely overshadowed by legislative fights, but the real test will come in 2011 – when the Obama Administration likely becomes the Ministry of Regulation.
The President faces a split Congress in 2011, and lawmaking wasn’t all that easy when he had strong majorities in both Houses. Beyond that, he faces the dual risks of losing his far-left base and alienating the middle by allowing the Republicans to play some offense with their House majority. Of course, any revolutionary bill passed by a Republican House will be shot down by the Democratic Senate – and then the Democrats become the sideline-sitting, Slurpee-sipping, “Party of No” just in time for the 2012 election – freeing them up to hand down edicts on everything from internet regulation to carbon emissions.
What is a President to do?
The answer lies in the alphabet soup of agencies throughout the Executive branch, including such classics as the FCC, the FTC, the SEC, and everyone’s favorite, the EPA. Each has regulatory authority delegated from Congress. And, unlike the President’s allies in Congress, bureaucrats will not have to face voters in 2012.
Regulatory agencies are not immune to public input, but they sure can make it a challenge.
For instance, anyone who has been involved in a land use issue which included federal oversight knows the mass of documents required. Each document (along with draft, final, and supplemental versions) must have its own public comment period, where citizens can submit their thoughts.
In theory, that should mean more avenues for input; in practice it is confusing and redundant. Making the process more complex is the fact that each agency may count comments differently; a regulator has the discretion to decide if a comment should be dismissed for being immaterial. Individual bureaucrats have tremendous interpretive power over the public input that crosses their desk.
Is the grassroots wave against big government – and the nascent GOP House majority they produced – already backed into a corner? Far from it.
The American people haven’t fallen back in love with Washington quite yet, so the electorate is likely to listen to the case against shadow laws via bureaucracy. Grassroots activists should participate in comment periods whenever they can – and make sure elected policymakers get a copy of the same letter or message that went to the regulators. (It isn’t as much fun as a protest or an angry phone call to your local Congressional office, but it’s still important.)
House Republicans can and will schedule oversight hearings. These hearings should include scrutiny over public participation opportunities Members of Congress should hold regulators accountable for providing opportunities for public access to the process – and for being receptive to the will of the people.
The Administration, which so dearly values open government, will be happy to comply – right?