Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Transparency", a poem

By David Weller


Here and there
Letters flow

High and low
Notebooks stow

Up and down
Memos grow

In and out
Data show


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Monday, January 26, 2009

Sunlight Foundation is a rich source for government transparency news

United States Capitol Rotunda. United States Capitol Rotunda
Image via Wikipedia

All Things Reform is occasionally text interviewing newsmakers in the government reform community. Recently, we conducted our first interview with Matt Stemple of You Street about their new campaign from Americans for Campaign Reform.

The Sunlight Foundation has done a great service to the transparency movement in the last few years on the internet; many projects and campaigns have received crucial funding from their foundation, for instance. They also make an effort to be a comprehensive resource of government transparency news for the general public.

Today's interview is with Nisha Thompson, Sunlight's Organizer and Outreach Coordinator; she may be reached at

ATR: Sunlight Foundation's web site and accompanying campaign sites and social networking provides transparency news. What blogs do you publish, and what 'beats' do they cover in today's transparency movement?

Sunlight Foundation: Thanks for the kind words about our work! We can only grow a movement to open our government when we're collaborating with others dedicated to the cause like you. So, thanks for helping us spread our message to get involved to create the transparent government we'd all like to see.

We publish the following blogs:
• Sunlight Foundation (, which covers news of government transparency, our work and that of our grantees and colleagues.
• Real Time Investigations (, which covers our investigative research team's work to dig into government data and use FOIA requests to shine a light on Congress
• The Open House and Senate Projects ( and, which reports on changes to policy on Capitol Hill and our collaborative work with other groups to advocate for technological reforms to make government information more meaningfully accessible to the public
• Party Time (, which updates readers with latest fundraising events and other political parties
• Sunlight Labs (, chronicling the technical side of making government transparency, updated by Sunlight's open source development team

ATR: People can also get your news on Facebook and Twitter, among other social networking sites. Is this news exclusive of your other news locations, e.g. your blogs and other sites? Or is it being published first at these social network sites as breaking news before being published elsewhere? How do you utilize each of your social network sites?

Sunlight Foundation: It depends. We typically use Twitter to share breaking news. On Facebook, we post updates that the community might enjoy. Both Twitter and Facebook have feeds from our blog. So they are used mostly at the same time to get people information. We also keep the dialog going and foster community-building among open government and open source fans the 'old fashioned' way, via lists. (We use Google groups for these. We feel the best way to keep people informed is by putting our news not only on our blog but also places were people are plugged in already to get their information.

ATR: Aside from your blogs and social networks, are there any more of your locations publishing news? If so, where does the public find it, and what type of news is it?

Sunlight Foundation: No pretty much any news we want to share comes out of our blogs and social networking sites. This is where we focus on sharing information. In some cases we have mentions in MSM and we also put those on our Delicious account and that is fed to our Web site. The best place to get all the news we cover is the Sunlight Foundation home page.

ATR: Would you say that Sunlight Foundation fully covers the news in the government transparency movement? Or does it fill its own niche of news stories exclusive of other government transparency organizations? Are there any more organizations with government transparency news and developments exclusive of the Sunlight Foundation?

Sunlight Foundation: We definitely do not cover everything (try as we might)! A great place to start is Open the Government. While we do cover state-level transparency initiatives through the Local Sunlight blog series I maintain, I'd recommend Open Records ( and Sunshine Review ( as great places for that information. International Transparency is hard to keep track of as well as. Organizations like Transparency International lead the way in organizing the international transparency community. Likewise, transparency groups exist around the world – one that we're huge fans of is MySociety in England. They really 'get' the Internet as a vehicle for transparency.

ATR: Reform politics is grassroots activism with government in the public's interest. Defined this way, would you say the Sunlight Foundation considers itself a reform organization? Are you primarily a public interest group? Or do you primarily associate and assist with governmental affairs? Or do you work in both directions; if so, how does each direction fit in your organization's mission?

Sunlight Foundation: We consider ourselves a transparency organization, powered by the Internet, first and foremost. Having said that, we do work to catalyze technological reform to enhance transparency in Congress through our Open House Project ( and its companion, the Open Senate Project ( Through these initiatives, we are working to encourage a "cultural" shift on Capitol Hill to encourage more lawmakers to understand the benefits of using the social Web in general and their own official Web sites to improve transparency and communication and citizen engagement in their work. As part of those efforts, we are working on changing policies and rules so information can become more open and elected officials can have more options to interact with citizens. We've been successful, namely with helping to influence the modernization of Franking rules, which govern how members of Congress can use the Internet in their work to communicate with constituents.

We also promote our reform agenda on the Hill, as best articulated through our model transparency bill – which we crafted online with citizen input at ( Right now, we're working to secure support on the Hill for that bill by meeting with congressional staff and lawmakers (so, yes, we do use 'old-fashioned' lobbying techniques!)

We also take that information and make it user friendly, present it in different ways to create a new way to look at government's work. Our mission is to not only create a transparent government but also empower citizens to take their representatives to task so that we have an elected body that represents citizens and not just the highest bidder. By advocating for more transparency as well as showing people different ways to expect government information we can actually show people that government information and data doesn't have to be intimidating, but something that can be interacted with and meaningful.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

President Obama signs Memoranda for more openness and transparency in the executive branch

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From: Washington Post

In a move that pleased good government groups and some journalists, President Obama issued new orders today designed to improve the federal government's openness and transparency. The first memo instructs all agencies and departments to "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act requests, while the second memo orders the director of the Office of Management and Budget to issue recommendations on making the federal government more transparent.

"The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said in the FOIA memo, adding later that "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public."

His memo on government transparency states that the Obama Administration "will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government." The order directs the yet-to-be-named chief technology officer to work with the OMB director to develop an "Open Government Directive" in the next four months.

Just in case new OMB director Peter R. Orszag needs any suggestions, the Sunlight Foundation -- a group dedicated to improving government transparency -- has several.

"I’m pretty damn pleased that the issue of transparency in government is such a high priority for the new administration," said director Ellen Miller. Each agency should do an audit of its information and data how it makes it available, Miller said. The administration should also redefine the definition of "public information" to mean that government information is not public until it is posted online in an easy-to-download format.

"The devil is in the details," Miller cautions, noting that the new new memos and executive orders had not been posted on the new White House Web site by late afternoon Wednesday.

Obama today also froze the salaries of senior White House staffers and issued executive orders on presidential records and new ethics guidelines for presidential appointees.

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President Obama signs Executive Order opening up previous presidents' records to the public

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shares a ...Image via Wikipedia
Government reform orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.

By Zachary Roth - January 22, 2009, 12:04PM

The experts' verdicts on the potential impact of President Obama's executive order on presidential records are starting to come in. And they're bolstering our initial take that Obama's move could significantly boost efforts to release crucial records that the Bush administration has fought to keep secret.

Doug Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine law school and expert on executive privilege, told TPMmuckraker that the order makes it harder for former presidents to block the release of their documents.

And, crucially, he said it could impact current high-profile struggles over Bush's records, "whether it be the dismissal of US Attorneys, whether it be other assertions of executive privilege dealing with White House emails and the like."

Congress and the Bush White House have been struggling over a key memo that details the level of White House involvement in the US Attorney firings of 2006. And open-government groups have sued the Bush administration to gain access to White House emails on a range of subjects, including the Valerie Plame leak probe and the decision to invade Iraq.

Kmiec, a noted conservative legal scholar who nonetheless supported Obama's campaign, said he had done some work with the Obama transition team, and had offered his assistance to the new administration.

Kmiec said the order appears to shift power from former presidents to the current administration, and to the National Archivist. Under an order issued by President Bush, former presidents and vice presidents could compel the Archivist to keep documents secret. Under the new order, former presidents can still ask the Archives to do so. But the burden of proof is squarely on the former president to prove that secrecy is in the nation's interest, and the Obama administration can decline the request if it's not convinced. That approach reorients things toward the original intention of the Presidential Records Act, passed in the wake of Watergate.

"If the Archivist were to make a determination that those materials would be made public," explained Kimiec, "then holding it back would take something extraordinary," in terms of an argument from the former president.

Kmiec's view is supported by open-government advocates. Scott Nelson of Public Citizen believes, in the words of the Associated Press, that "researchers should find it easier to gain access to records under the new order."

And yesterday, Anne Weissman of CREW, which unsuccessfully brought a lawsuit against Dick Cheney's office to compel him to hand over records to the Archives, told TPMmuckraker that the order "does have the potential to impact ongoing litigation," including over the US Attorney documents.

So when might we see those documents? If the Archivist and the Obama administration agree to it (in practice, the Archivist would likely defer to the administration), they could be made public as soon as the Archivist has prepared them for public display. Of course, President Bush could sue to stop the move -- but it looks like he'd face an uphill climb in convincing a court that there's a pressing need to keep them secret.

It really is a new day.

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President Obama signs Executive Orders restoring the US Constitution and rule of law in the treatment of terrorism prisoners

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From: Center for Constitutional Rights


January 22, 2009, New York – In response to President Obama’s signing of new executive orders today, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) issued the following statement:

We welcome the beginning of the end of lawlessness. Under the previous administration, executive orders became synonymous with secrecy, torture and attempts to override the Constitution. It is genuinely uplifting to see them now used to set things right. President Obama’s orders today are an important first step in restoring the rule of law; let us take the next steps with great care not to open the way for a return to the darkness of these last years.

The order to close Guantánamo, though it provides little detail and allows perhaps too much time to get it done given the pressing issues at stake, is a good start. We believe the president will be able to close Guantánamo in less than a year: the priority must be to repatriate the many men who can go home and find safe havens for the approximately 60 who would face torture or persecution.

The government has to charge the rest of the detainees in federal criminal court. There can be no third way, no new schemes for indefinite or preventive detention or alternative national security courts. Any move in that direction would discredit all of the new administration’s efforts in the eyes of the world.

The order to close the CIA black sites where people were held in secret for the purpose of torture is to be applauded. There is no place for such black holes in a democracy. Their intended purpose is to circumvent the Geneva conventions and our own laws. If the order leaves the option of reviving those sites, it is more symbolic than a true reversal.

The order to make all agencies abide by the Army Field Manual’s acceptable interrogation tactics is perhaps the most important gesture toward restoring our moral authority as a nation. The Center for Constitutional Rights represents so many men who were brutally tortured by our government that this hits home for us in a way that it may not for those with no faces and lives to attach to the story.

Again, we caution that the order may leave an escape hatch if the CIA should want more tactics, i.e. torture, available in its arsenal. The Geneva conventions should be the only arbiter of what is possible for governments to do to human beings.

Today’s orders are filled with promise. In addition, to ensure no future administration will take us back to these dark times, there needs to be individual accountability for the torture program, and other crimes committed. Prosecution is the only way to deter future lawbreakers. These orders are the right start, let us make sure this does not happen again.

To read the text of the executive orders, click here or download the attachments below.

CCR has led the legal battle over Guantanamo for the last six years – sending the first ever habeas attorney to the base and sending the first attorney to meet with a former CIA “ghost detainee.” CCR has been responsible for organizing and coordinating more than 500 pro bono lawyers across the country in order to represent the men at Guantanamo, ensuring that nearly all have the option of legal representation. CCR represented the detainees with co-counsel in the most recent argument before the Supreme Court on December 5, 2007.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

- 30 -

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Pres. Obama institutes executive branch "revolving door" reforms his first full day in office

the 44th President of the United States...Bara...Image by jmtimages via FlickrGovernment reform orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.
Democracy 21

Democracy 21 Press Release
January 21, 2009

Statement of Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer Praising
“Ground Breaking” Ethics Executive Order
Issued Today by President Obama

Executive Order Contains Toughest and Most Far Reaching “Revolving Door” Provisions Ever Adopted

President Barack Obama issued a ground breaking Executive Order today that establishes unprecedented new rules to govern the role of lobbyists in the Obama Administration.

The ethics Executive Order issued by the Obama Administration goes further than any previous action taken by a President to restrict the ability of presidential appointees who serve in the Executive Branch from coming back to lobby the Administration, and also to limit the role of lobbyists coming in to serve in the Administration.

It also bans presidential appointees from accepting gifts from lobbyists and lays the groundwork for extending this gift ban to all Executive Branch employees.

The new Executive Order contains the toughest and most far reaching revolving door provisions ever adopted.

President Obama’s Executive Order on ethics constitutes a major step in setting a new tone and attitude for Washington that challenges the lobbyist, special interest culture that pervades the nation’s Capitol.

We strongly praise President Obama for issuing this landmark Executive Order on his first day in office and demonstrating by his actions that he takes very seriously the importance of protecting the integrity of the government he leads, and, in so doing, the interests of the American people.

The new Executive Order, for the first time, prohibits presidential appointees who leave the government from coming back to lobby high level executive branch officials throughout the entire government, not just in their own department or agency, and from doing so for the entire period that President Obama serves as president. This includes a second term if the President is reelected.

It requires presidential appointees entering the Obama Administration to make a clear choice: if they want to serve in important policy positions in the Administration they must be willing to give up their ability to capitalize on their government jobs after leaving by lobbying the Obama Administration.

Previous Executive Branch revolving door provisions have restricted covered executive branch officials from going back to lobby their departments and agencies, but never the whole Executive Branch, and never for the length of time involved here.

The new Executive Order is based on the assumption that there are more than enough talented and qualified citizens in the country to fill senior government positions, without having to continue Washington’s ingrained “revolving door” tradition of turning public service into a vehicle for personal gain.

The Executive Order also contains reverse “revolving door” provisions that will for the first time restrict the ability of lobbyists entering the Obama Administration from helping their former clients or influencing decisions on issues on which they have lobbied.

It prohibits any presidential appointee who served as a lobbyist during the two-year period prior to joining the Administration from working in any agency or department that they had lobbied, for a two-year period after they join the Administration.

It also provides that a person who served as a lobbyist during the two-year period prior to joining the Obama Administration cannot for the first two years after being appointed to the Obama Administration participate in any particular matter on which the person lobbied or in the specific issue area in which the particular matter falls.

These are unprecedented restrictions on what lobbyists can do when they join an Administration.

The Executive Order requires all presidential appointees to sign a binding agreement that they will comply with the Executive Order and sets up an important oversight and enforcement process, giving responsibilities to the Office of Government Ethics and the Justice Department to ensure compliance with the new Order.

President Obama’s Executive Order follows on the important leadership he provided on lobbying reform in the last Congress when, along with Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), then-Senator Obama led a hard fought, successful battle to enact key lobbying transparency provisions. The provisions require members of Congress and federal candidates, for the first time, to disclose the lobbyists who bundled contributions for them and the total amounts each raised.

The most important government integrity issue that still lies ahead is reform of the nation’s campaign finance laws – reform that is needed as part of achieving President Obama’s oft stated goal during the campaign to fix Washington.

Successful campaign finance reform can fundamentally alter Washington’s influence-money culture.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, President Obama stated that he was “firmly committed to reforming the [presidential public financing] system as president so that it’s viable in today’s campaign climate.”

We look forward to working with President Obama and his Administration to accomplish this essential reform goal and also on efforts to establish a similar system for congressional races.

# # #

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White House office builds relationships with constituents through meaningful engagement

Marine One departs from the South Lawn where S...Image via WikipediaGovernment reform orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.

The Office of Public Liaison & Intergovernmental Affairs (OPL-IGA) is the front door to the White House through which everyone can participate and inform the work of the President.

OPL-IGA takes the Administration out of Washington and into communities across America, stimulating honest dialogue and ensuring that America's citizens and their elected officials have a government that works effectively for them and with them.

OPL-IGA will bring new voices to the table, build relationships with constituents and seeks to embody the essence of the President's movement for change through the meaningful engagement of citizens and their elected officials by the federal government.

We'll be adding many more ways for you to interact with OPA-IGA at this page in the weeks and months ahead.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Winning "Ideas for Change in America" to be presented during Inauguration Day

A proud moment for America - Change Can Happen...Image by rscottjones via FlickrGovernment reform orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.

January 17th, 2009

There are four days until the Inauguration, and the country is alight with excitement, not just about the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House but also for the beginning of a new era of civic engagement.

We’ve tapped into this energy with our Ideas for Change in America, and today we held a press event at the National Press Club in Washington DC to announce the winners of the competition. The 10 winning ideas reflect the diverse interests of the millions of people calling for change across the country, and include ideas for securing universal heath care, LGBT rights, and sustainable green energy. All winning ideas can be viewed at

The winning ideas were accepted on behalf of the Presidential Transition Team by Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media and the person who oversees our second-favorite website, Macon then addressed the attendees of the event, which included nonprofit leaders and grassroots activists, and spoke about the importance the administration will place on citizen-driven efforts like Ideas for Change.

After 656,991 votes for 7,847 ideas, we present the top 10 ideas for change (in no particular order):

Over the next week we will be working with nonprofit sponsors for each idea, including 1Sky, Healthcare-NOW!, and The Peace Alliance, to craft national campaigns around each idea. In the meantime, we have opened discussion for how to most effectively turn each idea into a successful national campaign, and would love your suggestions.

We also want to recognize the additional 25 ideas that received over 2500 votes, each of which attracted an impressive community. We are excited to be able to support these and other ideas as well over the next year as we build out a broader platform for individuals and organizations to promote the changes they seek.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

ProPublica Prizes for government investigative journalism will be presented this Spring

Government reform orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.
It's 2009 and the official beginning of awards season. Not just for Hollywood celebrities or pop music artists -- or journalists. We've taken a look through the magnifying glass of our logo and noticed that some of the people who do outstanding investigative work are almost never recognized for their important efforts. These people work in agencies such as the Government Accountability Office and the offices of various inspectors general, attorneys general, state auditors and comptrollers, congressional committees, special counsels, prosecutors and many more. They do unheralded work issuing reports that hold elected officials, government employees and others with power accountable.

So to recognize their contribution to more effective government, we created the ProPublica Prizes for Investigative Governance. The Prizes will honor the people who produce investigative reports that -- similar to our own mission -- achieve impact in the public interest by exposing exploitation of the weak by the strong and the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

Anyone can nominate an entry -- journalists/bloggers, government officials, citizens or even self-nominations -- so spread the word. To be eligible, entries should have been released in 2008 and the entry form (which can be downloaded here), along with a copy of the work, should be sent to the address below. Prizes will be awarded in five categories:

  • Federal investigation -- executive branch
  • Federal investigation -- legislative branch
  • Federal investigation -- independent agency
  • State or local investigation -- multi-district elective or executive agency
  • State or local investigation -- legislative branch or independent agency

The nominations will be judged by a panel of distinguished journalists and former public officials (click here for a complete list of the judges). All entries should be sent to ProPublica Prizes, One Exchange Plaza, 23rd Floor, New York, NY 10006 (212-514-5250); they're due by Jan. 31, 2009. Winners will be honored at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., this spring. If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact us at

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This weekend, CNN will debut the movie I.O.U.S.A., which is about our nation's current economic crisis

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Concord Coalition

"...they'll find it accomplishes an amazing thing. It explains the national debt, the foreign trade deficit, the decrease in personal savings, how the prime interest rate works, and the weakness of our leaders."
-Roger Ebert, Chicago-Sun Times (3.5 Stars)

This weekend, CNN will debut the movie I.O.U.S.A. Accompanying clips of the film will be a panel of experts discussing the movie in greater detail as well as its relevance to the current economic crisis. The event will be moderated by Ali Velshi and Christine Romans, hosts of "Your $$$$$." The panel guests will include Concord Coalition President Peter Peterson, former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, former Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin, and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley.

The program will be shown twice over the weekend: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 2:00 PM EST and Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 3:00 PM EST.

I.O.U.S.A. was released in theaters across the country in August and tells the real story of our national debt and why we need to reverse the flow of red ink before our nation faces a fiscal disaster. Highlights of the film include scenes of The Concord Coalition's Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, which has taken its message of fiscal responsibility across the country non-stop over the past two years.

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Mashup campaign and lobbying data in new ways in 2009

Image representing New York Times as depicted ...Image via CrunchBaseImage via CrunchBaseGovernment reform orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.
Sunlight Foundation

Capital Eye |

Massie Ritsch, the Center for Responsive Politics’ communication director, has declared 2009 “The Year for Open Data.” And judging by two announcements today, it looks like he’s right. CRP is just getting started opening up its vast databases to the world, making regular updates from here on forward. Check out what they are offering here.

Also today, The New York Times. As their announcement says, the API provides summaries of roll-call votes in the U.S. Congress; retrieves lists of members of Congress, vote data, and biographical information for individual House and Senate members. The Time’s data includes House votes since 1991 and Senate votes since 1989. Information on House members goes back to 1983, while the info on senators goes all the way back to 1947. Just a heads up: there are some concerns around our office about their TOS. Check the Sunlight Labs blog is a few hours for more details.

This has been a very good day for open data.

[Sunlight article accepts comments]

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Nominations are open for outstanding teacher awards across the nation

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National Civic League


Know any outstanding teachers? The 2009 MetLife Foundation Ambassadors In Education program is seeking nominees. The award program recognizes educators who demonstrate a deep commitment to both their schools and their communities by:

· building partnerships with community organizations, parents, and guardians;

· resolving conflicts and promote safety in the school and the community; or

· promoting civic engagement and community service.

There will be awards in 25 cities across the country. Each awardee earns a $5,000 grant for his or her school.

The nomination form, selection criteria, and list of eligible public school districts can be obtained by visiting the NCL website or clicking here.

Anyone can nominate, but often they come from fellow educators, parents, students and community activists. It's a great program.

The deadline is February 18, 2009, but why not submit your nomination early? The program is supported by the MetLife Foundation and administered by the National Civic League. For further information, call Kristin Seavey at NCL at 303-571-4343 or email

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

New U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is open to the public, except near Inauguration Day

US Capitol in Washington, D.C. The building is...U.S. Capitol, a National Historic Landmark.
Image via Wikipedia
Government orgs. deliver news on major events within their areas of expertise.
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center

The United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., is a symbol of the American people and their government, the meeting place of the nation's legislature. The Capitol also houses an important collection of American art, and it is an architectural achievement in its own right. It is a working office building as well as a tourist attraction visited by millions every year.

Construction of the U.S. Capitol began in 1793. In November 1800, the U.S. Congress met in the first completed portion, the north wing. In the 1850s, major extensions to the North and South ends of the Capitol were authorized because of the great westward expansion of our nation and the resultant growth of Congress. Since that time, the U.S. Capitol and its stately dome have become international symbols of our representative democracy.

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the newest addition to this historic complex. At nearly 580,000 square feet, the Visitor Center is the largest project in the Capitol's more than two-century history and is approximately three quarters the size of the Capitol itself. The entire facility is located underground on the east side of the Capitol so as not to detract from the appearance of the Capitol and the grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1874.

The U.S. Capitol will be closed to the public from 5 p.m. on Saturday, January 17, 2009 until 3 p.m. on Tuesday, January 20, 2009. Public tours of the Capitol will resume on Wednesday, January 21, 2009.

On Tuesday, December 2, the Capitol Visitor Center officially opened to the public. As of Tuesday, all tours of the Capitol will begin and end at the Visitor Center. Advance reservations are recommended to tour the Capitol. A limited number of same-day passes will be available. Click here to make a reservation to tour the Capitol.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

How much do we really owe in federal financial obligations?

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Peter G Peterson Foundation

What is the Real National Debt?


"How exactly does a $56.4 trillion bill add up?" you ask. We know that the federal government carries both publicly held debt and debt for money it has borrowed from itself. Together, these sums are closing in on $11 trillion. This is the figure most commonly cited as our "national debt," but actually, that’s only the start of the REAL national debt.

Right now, you are carrying a burden of about $184,000. That is each and every American’s share of the US government’s approximated $56.4 trillion in current obligations. And every year in which no down payments or reforms are made to these obligations, the total grows by $2 trillion to $3 trillion – or $6,600 to $10,000 per person – on autopilot.

How exactly does this $56.4 trillion bill add up? First, there are the federal government’s known liabilities that it is legally obliged to fulfill. These include publicly held debt, military and civilian pensions and retiree health benefits. As of September 30, 2008, these liabilities added up to $12.2 trillion.

Then there are various commitments and contingencies – i.e., contractual requirements that the government is expected to fulfill when, and if specified conditions are met. These include federal insurance payouts, loan guarantees, and leases. As of September 30, 2008, they added up to $1.4 trillion.

So where does the remaining $43 trillion or so come from? That’s what the government has promised to pay in Social Security and Medicare benefits in excess of related revenues. As of January 1, 2008, current and promised future Social Security benefits amounted to $6.6 trillion. And between Medicare’s three programs (hospital insurance, outpatient, and prescription drug), current and future promised Medicare benefits amounted to $36.3 trillion.

Keep in mind that although people rely on the promise of these benefits, the government can – and does – change these programs in ways that increase or decrease the value of the expected benefits, which has the effect of expanding or shrinking the total amount of obligations. Such changes can be made to the size of payroll tax contributions, cost-of-living adjustments, beneficiary premiums, eligibility ages and benefit levels, among other examples.

That’s how you get to $56.4 trillion. And remember: every year in which no down payments or reforms are made to any of the obligations above, this total grows by $2 trillion to $3 trillion.

Stick with to keep track of how much you owe.

SOURCE: 2008 Financial Report of the United States Government. Social Security and Medicare benefits are present values as of January 1, 2008. Burden per person calculated using estimated December 2008 US Census Bureau data. Other data as of September 30, 2008.

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