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Watchdogs defanged by government shutdown
Question of the Day
The government shutdown is inconveniencing a group whose job it is to inconvenience the government.
Journalists and other watchdogs have found themselves blocked from some information on the national government as a result of furloughs and stoppages brought about by the shutdown.
“The public most definitely is being deprived of a level of access that they’re use to,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.
Because of the shutdown, government websites are switched off or not updated, federal databases aren’t accessible, and media representatives have been sent home without pay.
That means government activities aren’t facing quite the same level of scrutiny they usually do. For example, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for government transparency, says campaign finance records aren’t being updated, despite upcoming midterm and gubernatorial elections in several states.
“It’s not 1995 anymore — the government lives on the Internet, and so do we,” writes Eric Mill, who works on digital projects at Sunlight. “We can’t just lose access to all the information they put online.”
The government’s own investigators have also been placed on leave. Each federal agency has an internal watchdog, the inspector general. But they have been furloughed. Likewise, Congress’ chief investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, isn’t working.
“Please note that a lapse in appropriations has caused GAO to shut down its operations,” reads a note at the top of the office’s website.
Tuesday, The Washington Times reported that furloughs at the Congressional Budget Office mean lawmakers aren’t getting the kind’s of economic reports that could assist them in negotiations over the shutdown, or even determine the cost of the shutdown to the federal Treasury.
Capitol Hill’s own oversight has also been brought to a standstill. Congressional investigations into the Benghazi attacks and scandals at the Internal Revenue Service have largely been put on hold while partisan battles continue over the budget.
McClatchy News reporter Chris Adams was set to begin teaching an investigative journalism course at Northwestern University using publicly available information from government sites.
“Instead I had to start class by opening up four or five windows on the Web showing ‘This government site is down,’ ‘This government site is down,’ ‘This government site is down,’” he said.
Ms. Weismann said CREW has temporarily stopped filing Freedom of Information Act requests “because I’m afraid they’re just going to get lost,” she said, adding the government could use the backlog of paperwork during the shutdown as an excuse to not release information for months.
The government shutdown could even start to affect public safety, Ms. Weismann said, though she noted that federal employees would be brought back to work in the event of an emergency.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
About the Author
Phillip Swarts is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times, covering fiscal waste, fraud and political ethics. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and previously worked as an investigative reporter for the Washington Guardian. Phillip can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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