Reporters, public blocked from Biden’s fiscal cliff call with local officials

By   /   December 5, 2012  /   No Comments

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — The front page of the White House’s website for its Office of Intergovernmental Affairs prominently features a quote from President Barack Obama promising “open and honest” government.

Apparently, that office’s idea of open and honest government does not include the public or the media.

The Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which coordinates presidential efforts with mayors and town councils across the nation, is hosting a conference call on Thursday afternoon with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss the Democrats’ plan to deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff” that is looming at the end of the year.  The invitation to the call, which was distributed to local government officials on Tuesday, explicitly forbids the media from participating in the call.

WHITE HOUSE: The Obama Administration promised to be the most open and transparent in history. Some say they aren’t living up that promise.

The invitation “cordially invites” selected local officials to join a call with Biden to “discuss the importance of a balanced approach to deficit reduction and extending middle class tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans,” according a copy of the invitation obtained by Watchdog.org.

The invitation comes from the desk of Jay Williams, deputy director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio.

But Williams’ cordiality does not extend to the fourth estate.  After giving the call-in information and a link to RSVP to the call, Williams makes it clear that “this call is off the record and not for press purposes” while also asking recipients not to forward the invitation to anyone else.

The message is pretty clear — for government ears only.

Calls and emails to Williams’ office, housed directly within the White House, were not returned Wednesday morning.

But can elected officials from various levels of state government hold a meeting on one of the most pressing issues affecting the American people — and the residents of towns and cities represented by the White House’s exclusive list of local officials — without letting the public or media hear what is being discussed?

Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, which is part of the Missouri School of Journalism, said the call may not violate any open meeting laws, but it does seem to run counter to the pledge Obama made when he took office.

BIDEN: The vice president will host a conference call with local officials Thursday afternoon, but the media and the public are not invited.

“This does not sound like a good move by an administration that pledged to be the most open and transparent in history,” Bunting said Wednesday. “In the spirit of that pledge of openness and transparency, I have to wonder were those just meaningless words?”

Kristin McMurray, managing editor for Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit that works to increase transparency in state and local government, said residents should ask their local officials if they participated in this or other events with federal officials on the fiscal cliff.

But, unfortunately, such closed-door meetings are a national trend, particularly on important issues, she said.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” McMurray said.

The White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs now enjoys a “more prominent and responsive role” in the Obama administration than it did under previous presidents, according to an article that appeared in Governing Magazine last year.  Local officials, including a number of Republicans quoted in that article, said the Obama White House was more engaged on local issues than the Bush administration had been.

It appears that part of that increased role for the office is helping the administration sell its plan to increase taxes on high-earning Americans by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire on Dec. 31.

And local officials certainly have reason to be interested in the outcome of the fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that going over the fiscal cliff would contract national GDP by as much as 1.3 percent in 2013 and likely would drive the nation’s economy back into a recession.  That would translate to lower revenue for local government coffers, many of which are running dry in the wake of the 2008 recession and ever-expanding public pension costs.

Going over the cliff also would reduce some federal subsidies for municipal government — like the Community Development Block Grant, a flexible program used to fund a variety of municipal services — as part of the $110 million so-called “sequester” cuts to be enacted if Congress does not reach a deal in time.

And as the consequences of the fiscal cliff cut into state budgets, states are likely to pass off more expenses to local governments, a trend that has already begun, writes Sam Williford, an associate consultant with the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

Still, the American people and the media have a constitutional right to access and understand the negotiations taking place between their local elected officials at the White House.

Steve Stanek, managing editor of Budget & Tax News, a publication of the Heartland Institute, a national conservative think tank based in Chicago, said the Obama administration has consistently broken promises to be transparent on major issues like the fiscal cliff, including the closed-door meetings that took place before the passage of the health care reform law in 2010.

Then again, the Bush administration did the same things, such as “ram-rodding through the huge Medicare drug entitlement bill” in 2003, he pointed out.

“It seems neither political party wants the public to see how the important sausage is made. This should make us all worry,” Stanek wrote in an email on Wednesday.

Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @Watchdog.org on Twitter.

— Edited by Kelly Carson, kcarson@watchdog.org

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Eric is a reporter for Watchdog.org and former bureau chief for Pennsylvania Independent. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he enjoys great weather and low taxes while writing about state governments, pensions, labor issues and economic/civil liberty. Previously, he worked for more than three years in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, covering Pennsylvania state politics and occasionally sneaking across the border to Delaware to buy six-packs of beer. He has also lived (in order of desirability) in Brussels, Belgium, Pennsburg, Pa., Fairfield, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and elsewhere. He received a bachelor's degree from Fairfield University in 2009, but he refuses to hang on his wall until his student loans are fully paid off sometime in the mid-2020s. When he steps away from the computer, he enjoys drinking craft beers in classy bars, cheering for an eclectic mix of favorite sports teams (mostly based in Philadelphia) and traveling to new places.

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