Government regulations and laws can be bad in at least three ways. First, they can simply be bad on their face. Obamacare, for example, requires people to buy something (health insurance) simply because they are alive. Call it a tax on breathing. Second, they might have been created questionable legislative practices. A law that both set the state budget for funding of public schools and outlaws happy hours would violate a constitutional requirement that each law have only one subject. Finally, they can be carried out for the benefit of a few rather than the public, as when the mayor’s family is awarded a large no-bid contract.
“Transparency tools” can be helpful in all three circumstances, by exposing the workings of government to the public. These tools can bring about public pressure that can change bad laws or practices. I can’t guarantee that they’ll always be effective. But as “60 Minutes,” Andrew Brietbart, James O’Keefe and the progressive muckrakers of old have shown, exposing questionable practices to the light of day can bring good results.
The basic principle of transparency is embodied in FOIA, or the “Freedom of Information Act.” According to www.FOIA.gov, “any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records.” While the Act is a federal law, many states and local government have some version of it as well.
A lot of government information is already on the web, but if what you’re looking for is not there, you can “FOIA” the appropriate agency for it. Tell the agency what you want to know, what format you’d like it in, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. (Governments are free to charge you for research time and photocopying expenses.) Note that you won’t always get what you want, as agencies may claim that national security or the privacy concerns of employees take precedence. Don’t know how to start? FOIA.gov has lots of information, including links to 100 different agencies to help you get started.
The Federal Register
While we’re being swamped with laws, we’re drowning in regulations. For example, the Obama Administration is EPA regulations to conduct what some people have called a “war on coal,” rather than seeking federal laws. The Federal Register is the place to look for existing and proposed federal regulations on coal and just about anything else. If a proposed regulation is open to public comment, you can even put in your two cents.
You can also get information about state budgets, including salaries of public employees, public pension obligations, and, my “favorite,” money that local and state governments take from taxpayers to lobby state and federal officials.
The Sunshine Review grades states, counties, cities, and school districts on their transparency practices. Units of government that do an outstanding job are honored with a Sunny Award. For example, the State of Illinois website gets an “A” for including budgets, audits, and recent contracts, which are a just a few of the points on a checklist the site applies.
If you read a newspaper these days, you’re more likely to find stories about Hollywood celebreties, sports, or self-help articles than you are about the workings of government. Investigative reporting is a dying art, but the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity has stepped into the gap. It has professional journalists who follow state and local government, and it also trains citizen-journalists. If you look at nothing else on this site, visit the state resources page.
The Franklin Center operates Watchdog.org, which is a platform of journalists to publish their news about political developments in the various states. The center also operates some state-specific watchdog sites, such as Cal Watchdog and Texas Watchdog.
If the United States is to be a self-governing republic rather than a government-knows-best country, citizens must keep watch over public officials. These tools can help in that task. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
John R. LaPlante as a senior fellow of the Free Market at the Center of the American Experiment and a contributor to TheMichiganView.com.