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Columns, Opinions

Walsh ’23: Will Biden meaningfully increase government transparency? Probably not.

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, March 8, 2021

With the tumult of the last four years, it’s not hard to decipher President Biden’s mandate. Economic relief from COVID-19 and racial justice sit atop the agenda while issues like environmental protection, LGBTQ+ rights and electoral reform are on a slightly lower rung. But his mandate goes beyond just expanding rights and improving livelihoods through public policy. Many voters were simply tired of the chaos and dishonesty of the Trump administration. Thus, increasing transparency was an implicit part of Biden’s electoral mandate. But there is a difference between appearing transparent and actually being transparent — and it does not appear likely that Biden will be able to do the latter. If Biden maintains an opaque White House, it could become difficult to evaluate his performance and hold him accountable when he fails to live up to his mandate. 

The Trump administration is a shining example of what not to do in the realm of transparency. Donald Trump’s penchant for lying turned fact-checking into something of a cottage industry beginning in 2017. He refused to release his tax returns, an unprecedented move for modern presidents. Moreover, he undermined public trust in the free press and shut out journalists from the administration by making official press briefings infrequent. Yet another barometer for a president’s transparency level is the rate at which they reject or censor Freedom of Information Act requests. The Act enables ordinary citizens, in addition to journalists and others tasked with holding the government to account, to ask executive agencies to disclose information about their operations. By the middle of his term, Trump set a record by denying or censoring 78 percent of all FOIA requests. Buzzfeed News’s Jason Leopold, one of the nation’s most prodigious FOIA requesters, noted “an active conversation taking place within the agencies to withhold records (and) to thwart the efforts of requesters (in order) to essentially ensure that information is not being released” during Trump’s term. 

While there exist many other metrics to evaluate a president’s openness — such as national security declassifications, whistleblower protection, data disclosure, and endorsing transparency legislation in Congress — FOIA is the most common, so it will receive the most attention in this article. 

The Biden administration has already made significant improvements in the public realm. For one, we are back to regular, non-antagonistic press briefings. Press Secretary Jen Psaki has not accused any journalists of being partisan “activists,” nor has Biden called any of his detractors purveyors of fake news. But beating Trump on these metrics is a low bar to clear. If our evaluation of the Biden administration’s transparency does not go beyond its outward attitude toward the press, it may return to the entrenched secrecy of previous administrations. 

As unprecedented as Trump’s opaqueness was, President Barack Obama was no paragon of transparency himself. On his first day in office, Obama made bold promises to promote transparency in his administration, issuing a memorandum that pledged to respect the spirit of FOIA and declaring that “in the face of doubt, openness prevails.” But experts on government transparency have mixed reviews about Obama’s record. Whereas the Federation of American Scientists lauded him for achieving a “systemic contraction in the whole apparatus of government secrecy” through declassifications of national security documents, others are more cynical. In its drone program in the Middle East, the Obama administration routinely refused to release information about civilian casualties. Likewise, before Trump came along, Obama was the one setting records for withholding FOIA requests, accumulating a backlog of unaddressed requests and unlawfully censoring or rejecting requests. 

Despite Obama’s day-one promise to revolutionize government transparency and his subsequent failure to do so, he still won reelection with flying colors. This is because, other than open-government watchdog groups, litigious FOIA lawyers and a collection of Beltway politicos, most voters do not place much stock in how transparent a president actually is. After all, most people don’t have time to file FOIA requests or track the Pentagon’s every move. If Biden wanted to take up the lackluster Obama-era approach to transparency, he could do so and probably not damage his electoral odds in 2024. He also took office with a litany of urgent public policy goals and Democratic control of both houses, which could serve as distractions for voters who might otherwise start to become frustrated with an opaque administration. 

There’s even more reason for cynicism. Whereas Obama pledged to increase transparency on day one through an executive order — and ended up falling flat — Biden has made no such assurance a month and a half into his term. The closest we have gotten is a vow from the press secretary to bring “trust and transparency back to the briefing room,” an obvious dig at the former administration’s testy relationship with journalists. But, as mentioned already, being nice to reporters is the easy part, and conveniently, it’s also what voters tend to notice. 

The Biden administration also may have an interest in keeping government opaque. The agencies that receive the most FOIA requests are the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense. The DHS was responsible for many of the previous administration’s immigration policies, including separating children from their families and detaining them in cages. And the DOD, in overseeing the armed forces, is directly involved in our numerous wars across the world. Those, including progressives, seeking to scale back military involvement overseas and advocate for a more humane immigration system can use FOIA to hold presidents’ feet to the fire. If their requests are successful, they can publish them in the media for all to see. But if Biden takes the same approach to transparency as Obama, he can evade the ire of progressives simply by refusing FOIA requests to the DHS and DOD. But if he makes a habit of rejecting FOIA requests, the public will be left in the dark — leaving us less able to evaluate Biden’s ability to live up to key campaign promises including immigration reform.

Whether or not Biden will reverse course from the previous administrations and promote transparency is unclear, as it will take time before we can evaluate his responsiveness to FOIA requests, in addition to other measures he may implement to ensure transparency. With the low bar set by Trump, Biden could very well get away with maintaining an opaque White House. Thus, the most surefire way of ensuring transparency is turning it into a hot-button issue that can affect a president’s electoral odds. That means making FOIA a household word in our political lexicon, on the same level as “health care,” “national security” and “taxes.” Such a shift would take an arduous, expensive and long-lasting public relations campaign, so it’s unlikely to happen unless FOIA secrecy leads to a national crisis. Until then, it will be hard to trust that any president — including Biden — will take meaningful steps to promote transparency. 

Matt Walsh ’23 can be reached at matthew_walsh@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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