President Joe Biden campaigned on improving government transparency and a promise to release the White House visitor logs — a practice his predecessor, Donald Trump, had stopped in 2017. This was welcome news for transparency advocates since without public release, it is impossible to know who may be exerting influence on administration policy.
The issue of visitor logs exploded in the George W. Bush years when administration observers suspected that oil industry executives were the primary influencers on an energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney. The White House refused to release the identities of those who met with task force members. In response to that firestorm, in 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to open the books, and he did so soon after taking office.
Yet not all is so transparent now. The Biden White House says it will not release the “virtual” visitor logs, which, during the COVID-19 pandemic, record the primary way the president and other officials interact with the outside world, including with lobbyists and policy experts.
This isn’t the only place where the Biden White House has come up lacking. So far, it has failed to post online the daily schedules of the president and vice president. Also, the White House comment line has been eliminated. It’s still early, but in presidential politics, early actions often create lasting impressions, and the president risks being seen as less transparent now in contrast to his longstanding image for candor and openness.
Obama was the first to release the White House visitor logs. The Trump administration, despite resistance from the president, eventually agreed to release department-held visitor logs — most notably those from Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago.
In response to some pushback, the Biden White House has released information about in-person meetings, but it has held firm on the virtual meeting logs, offering no rational explanation for keeping such meetings secret. Perhaps it fears additional transparency requests for the logs of the White House phones? That’s one possible conclusion after a White House official recently compared the virtual meeting logs to phone records and noted that “previous administrations didn’t release phone logs.”
News reports around this issue have framed the decision as Biden’s to make. But the general parameters and legal requirements for government transparency should come from Congress and the president working together to develop sound policy regarding the disposition of public records, as happened in the case of the Presidential Records Act of 1978 that mandated the preservation of official presidential records. Sometimes the judiciary has to weigh in to provide its own guidance when the political branches cannot cooperate.
Leaving the White House visitor logs decision in the hands of each president has resulted in inconsistent practices, as well as confusing and inconsistent transparency decisions. As openness is a hallmark of our democratic republic, and an essential element of making policy and holding leaders accountable for their decisions, we believe Congress has a role to play here.
Congress should act to mandate the release of the visitor logs — both in-person and virtual — at the primary and secondary residences, and even vacation homes, of all presidents. Certain types of information would still be protected by executive privilege, under some circumstances. But any such measure by Congress should tilt in favor of disclosure and include a review mechanism that is independent of the president and other executive branch officials.
The decision of the White House to open up the in-person White House visitor logs is a step in the right direction. But it is merely one step, and there is much yet to be done to ensure transparency regarding who has access to and advice for the president.
Mitchel A. Sollenberger is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
They are co-authors (with Jeffrey Crouch) of the recently published book, “The Unitary Executive Theory: A Danger to Constitutional Government.”