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More transparency?

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Last week, during his state of the union address, President Obama talked about a "21st century government that's open and competent." He called for Congress to follow the White House's lead and reveal, online, every time its members meet with a lobbyist, and he promised a website that will detail how and where tax dollars are being spent.

The week before the president spoke, four Arkansas House committees considered a more basic idea of transparency, whether to allow live video streaming of their committee meeting rooms. The votes didn't concern purchasing and installing the equipment — that had already been taken care of, to the tune of somewhere north of $375,000. Rather, the committees voted on whether to simply turn the system on.

That any sort of debate preceded the votes was galling, if not surprising. That some House members, including Majority Leader Johnnie Roebuck (D-Arkadelphia), argued that streaming meetings in some but not all committee meeting would offer "a very slanted and limited view of what goes on in state government" was yet another sign that retrograde ideas can find purchase in the ledge anywhere.

Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of state House committee members took a more sensible view. Those who spoke after voting for streaming largely echoed Minority Leader John Burris (R-Harrison), who said that anything that leads to more transparency in government is a good thing.

That position is one I'd wager most of us, regardless of party affiliation, can agree on. Moreover, I expect most of us consider it a democratic birthright. Maybe because our country's leaders have been talking about it for a long time. Founding fathers like James Madison argued for "easy prompt circulation of public proceedings" in the 18th century. Lincoln all but codified the idea of an electorate thoroughly integrated into the workings of government with his notion of a government "of, by and for" the people. A half a century later, Justice Louis Brandeis helped build the legal foundation for Freedom of Information laws and gave transparency advocates a guiding aphorism: "Sunlight ... is the best disinfectant."

Even without the benefit of history, we only have to look to Facebook's recent monolithic rise (it now constitutes more web traffic than Google) to know that we are a nation (and a world) that values transparency. 

As for openness in government, the Obama administration has told federal agencies to "adopt a presumption in the favor of disclosure" when confronted with Freedom of Information requests. Now, thanks to the power of network technology and the low cost of storing data, news organizations like ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation can, more easily than ever before, compile and parse massive databases that track thorny topics like stimulus spending and lobbyist spending. WikiLeaks may not survive its founder's ego, but the idea of a secure portal for classified leaks seems likely to. Already, Al Jazeera has developed a WikiLeak-style wing, the Transparency Unit, and the New York Times has indicated the development of a similar department.

It's hard not think of today as the golden age of government transparency. That is, until we start thinking of counterexamples.

A report released last spring by the independent research group the National Security Archive demonstrated that, despite the Obama administration's directive to government agencies to fulfill FOIA requests, few were actually following through.

Last year's Citizen United decision by the Supreme Court allowed millions of undisclosed money into the 2010 midterm elections, easily the least transparent in recent memory.

In December, despite what appeared to be unanimous bipartisan support, an unknown U.S. senator placed an anonymous hold on the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, a bill that would have expanded our woefully insufficient federal protection for whistleblowers of the non-intelligence-related variety. Last week, the U.S. Senate eliminated the tradition of secret holds, but the mystery senator is still at large. See onthemedia.org for a promising crowd-sourcing effort to expose the secret senator.

In Arkansas, of course, not everyone follows Rep. Burris' line of thinking. The state Game and Fish Commission tried to adopt its own less stringent FOI law late last year, but backed away after public outcry. Meanwhile, despite outcry in these pages and elsewhere, the Razorback Foundation continues to operate in secrecy, despite clearly receiving public funds, a condition that, by law, should trigger Arkansas's FOIA.

So are we moving towards more transparent government? Maybe. But the shadows still loom large.

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