The Government Shutdown Is Terrible for Transparency

There’s not just a shutdown. There’s a blackout, and it makes journalism suffer.

US Capitol Police keep people at a distance as they listen as House Democrats speak about the government shutdown on Capitol Hill October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. The US government is in a forced shutdown after lawmakers failed to pass a spending bill. 
National Journal
Patrick Reis and Matt Berman
Add to Briefcase
Patrick Reis and Matt Berman
Oct. 3, 2013, 8:16 a.m.

Thursday morn­ing’s New York Times starts with a block­buster story on Obama­care:

“A sweep­ing na­tion­al ef­fort to ex­tend health cov­er­age to mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans will leave out two-thirds of the poor blacks and single moth­ers and more than half of the low-wage work­ers who do not have in­sur­ance, they very kinds of people that the pro­gram was in­ten­ded to help, ac­cord­ing to an ana­lys­is of census data by The New York Times.”

It’s a ma­jor rev­el­a­tion for the na­tion’s hotly con­tested policy, but it wouldn’t have come to light without pub­licly avail­able census data. But right now, be­cause of the gov­ern­ment shut­down, that’s data that you can’t find on­line.

The gov­ern­ment shut­down comes at a ma­jor cost to journ­al­ism and gov­ern­ment trans­par­ency. It may not seem like a big deal, and it’s def­in­itely not as ob­vi­ously det­ri­ment­al as the nearly 1 mil­lion fed­er­al work­ers out of work without pay, but right now, when the pub­lic needs de­tailed, un-spun in­form­a­tion most, it’s in­cred­ibly hard to find.

This in many ways should be a time for polit­ic­al journ­al­ism to flour­ish. Mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans are likely pay­ing at­ten­tion to what their gov­ern­ment is do­ing right now in a way they typ­ic­ally have not. We await polling on that point, but it’s ob­vi­ous in terms of web­site traffic. As haz­ard­ous as a shut­down is, it’s an ex­cit­ing time in polit­ics. Things are ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing. On that meas­ure alone, the gov­ern­ment shut­down is pretty great for journ­al­ism.

But with a massive trove of gov­ern­ment data off­line, the un­der­ly­ing product suf­fers. The Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics — the gov­ern­ment arm the pro­duces in­valu­able data on the em­ploy­ment situ­ation, in­clud­ing the monthly jobs re­port — is down to just three em­ploy­ees dur­ing the shut­down. You can ac­cess old BLS re­ports on­line right now, but the site won’t up­date with new re­search dur­ing the shut­down. The BLS Septem­ber jobs re­port is due Fri­day, and it’s cur­rently un­clear as to wheth­er or not we’ll be see­ing any­thing. Why un­clear? Be­cause, dur­ing the shut­down, most gov­ern­ment agen­cies — in­clud­ing, it seems, the Labor De­part­ment which over­sees the BLS — have de­clared pub­lic-re­la­tions of­fi­cials non­es­sen­tial.

Which gets to an­oth­er journ­al­ism cas­u­alty of the shut­down: tele­phones. Al­most all phone calls to com­mu­nic­a­tions staff in gov­ern­ment, or to con­gres­sion­al of­fices on the Hill, res­ult in a prerecor­ded voice mes­sage say­ing that dur­ing the shut­down, no one is around to re­ceive or re­turn your calls or emails. One Sen­ate aide told Na­tion­al Journ­al that “we’re mon­it­or­ing phone mes­sages, but we’re not an­swer­ing the phones.” That may not sound like a big deal, but what it ef­fect­ively means is that, un­less you are on the Hill in per­son, the only com­mu­nic­a­tion you’re likely to re­ceive from Con­gress is an of­ten-use­less press re­lease. That ob­vi­ously also hurts more gen­er­al con­stitu­ent ser­vices.

And while the branches in charge of ex­plain­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down have largely gone dark, the ones in change of spin­ning it for polit­ic­al pur­poses re­main in­tact. Both parties’ con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees, the ones tasked with get­ting their mem­bers in­to seats and knock­ing the oth­er parties’ mem­bers out of them, are in hy­per-drive. Mul­tiple times an hour, they’re blast­ing out press re­leases to re­port­ers, spit­ting half-truths as they at­tempt to fire up the out­rage ma­chine.

The net res­ult: Con­gress’s shrill con­ver­sa­tion is as easy as ever to cov­er, but in­form­a­tion about the real-world im­pacts of that im­passe are harder than ever to un­der­stand.

In this way, the people es­sen­tial enough to be able to stick through the shut­down are able to vir­tu­ally dic­tate frames of de­bate. It is, in part, why we’ve seen so many stor­ies about mem­bers of Con­gress’ pay, or their stands at Wash­ing­ton’s World War II Me­mori­al (which oc­ca­sion­ally back­fire). And with few­er gov­ern­ment sources around to talk to, it turns them in­to even more of a com­mod­ity, giv­ing them even more power.

This isn’t just about it be­ing more dif­fi­cult to get some data or quotes. It’s an is­sue of trans­par­ency. Dur­ing the shut­down, Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act re­quests are not be­ing pro­cessed. The Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion “will be un­able to provide any ser­vices dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down,” and its elec­tron­ic fil­ing sys­tem for polit­ic­al-dona­tion dis­clos­ures may not be get­ting up­dated. That’s des­pite polit­ic­al fun­drais­ing go­ing ba­na­nas since the shut­down, with the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee see­ing its best fun­drais­ing day since the elec­tion oc­cur­ring Monday. On Wed­nes­day, the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee said it had raised more than $1 mil­lion in the pre­vi­ous 48 hours.

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.

What We're Following See More »
“NORMAL SIDE EFFECTS”
McCain Returns to Hospital for Treatment
4 hours ago
THE LATEST
NOW NAMED THE SAM JOHNSON AWARD
Rep. Sam Johnson Receives RSC Member of the Year Award
5 hours ago
THE LATEST
YELLEN’S LAST FOMC MEETING AS CHAIR
Fed Raises Rates, More to Come
7 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Fed has raised rates another quarter point, to a target rate of 1.25 percent to 1.5 percent. Two members dissented in favor of keeping rates stable. As of this moment, they expect to make three more quarter-point hikes in 2018, and two in 2019. This meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee was Janet Yellen's last as chair.

Source:
IN CONFERENCE COMMITTEE NOW
House, Senate Agree in Principle on Tax Bill
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"House and Senate negotiators have reached a deal on a tax plan" and plan to send the legislation to President Trump before Christmas, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch said Wednesday. "CNBC previously reported that a version of the GOP proposal — as of Tuesday — features a 21 percent corporate tax rate and a top individual rate of 37 percent. It would also allow a mortgage interest deduction on loans up to $750,000."

Source:
GOODLATTE WARNS OF “EXTREME BIAS”
Rosenstein Denies Any Impropriety by Mueller’s Team
9 hours ago
THE LATEST

At a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said "there's nothing inappropriate about FBI officials on special counsel Robert Mueller's team holding political opinions so long as it doesn't affect their work." Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said recently disclosed texts among former members of Mueller's team, "which were turned over to the panel Tuesday night by the Justice Department, revealed 'extreme bias.'"

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login