James Eli Shiffer
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The last time the White House put out a vacancy sign, both major party presidential candidates talked about transparency so much you'd think they were running for chief window-washer.

Sen. John McCain, May 2008: "My administration will set a new standard for transparency and accountability."

Then-Sen. Barack Obama, August 2007: Pledges the "most transparent and accountable administration in history."

In 2016, the only times Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump bring up the issues is to bludgeon each other with accusations of secrecy and subterfuge.

So have voters lost any interest in opening up government to more public scrutiny?

Not at all, says Alex Howard, senior analyst for the Sunlight Foundation. The nonpartisan, nonprofit foundation in Washington advocates for better public access to government.

Howard has to tread carefully, given that his group cannot endorse candidates. But he is monitoring the campaigns for clues to how a President Trump or President Clinton would handle the issue.

Though the candidates may not be touting platforms about it, the issue of transparency is at center stage this election season.

The flap over Clinton's private e-mail server when she was secretary of state has taken the issue and "elevated it to a much higher level than it has been before," Howard said. Much of that debate was driven by a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from Judicial Watch, another nonpartisan Washington group. Clinton found herself on the defensive about whether she was evading the Freedom of Information Act, and thousands of e-mails were published on the State Department website.

The Clinton campaign website features a commitment to releasing more data about federal spending and requiring businesses to submit more publicly accessible data "so that regulators, watchdog groups, and the American people can more easily identify fraud and illegal behavior."

Then there's Trump, who seems to favor bringing corporate-style secrecy to government. In May, the billionaire businessman said that how much he pays in taxes is "none of your business."

"He is setting a new standard for a lack of transparency as a candidate because … of his refusal to release his tax returns," Howard said.

In an interview with the Washington Post in March, Trump suggested that federal workers should sign nondisclosure agreements to prevent them from writing books about their experiences once they leave the job. That's something he does with his own employees.

Meanwhile, organizations like WikiLeaks are trying to scramble the race with targeted releases of embarrassing records from the hacked computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and other groups. Howard calls it the "weaponization of transparency."

None of this seems to bode well for a new era of sunshine at the White House in 2017. But Howard thinks it would be impossible to turn back the clock.

In one of his first official acts, President Obama signed an executive order declaring that all federal records are public unless otherwise classified. In Obama's final year, Congress unanimously updated the Freedom of Information Act to codify that presumption into law, preventing future presidents from simply reversing it by executive order.

Obama's record on open government is decidedly mixed, especially in the area of national security.

Still, "there's a standard set with respect to elevating open government to a presidential priority," Howard said. "It would be extremely bad optics for whoever comes in next to tear that up."

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116.