By Christine Tatum | September 28th, 2006
Occasionally, members of Congress realize just how ridiculously secretive government is and actually do something to promote the free flow of public information.
Wonder of wonders, the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability (now there’s a mouthful) today approved the OPEN Government Act (H.R. 867. OPEN, by the way stands “Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government”).
This, ladies and gentlemen, could be the most comprehensive legislative reform of the Freedom of Information Act we’ve seen in a decade.
Today’s vote is hot on the heels of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval of the Senate’s version of the act (S. 394), a bill that also has bipartisan support.
If approved, the act would provide an array of sensible reforms, including:
“On December 14, 2005, President Bush signed an executive order improving implementation of FOIA. Today’s action recognizes that even the best executive order is no substitute for action by Congress.”
Translation: President Bush made a nice overture, but he didn’t go far enough. Thank goodness Congress is wising up and on track to do something really worth cheering about.
In December, President Bush issued an executive order requiring agencies to take several steps aimed at streamlining the handling of FOIA requests and generally making the process smoother for everyone. He even called for the appointment of senior-level officers to ensure FOIA compliance.
But here’s where the president fell short: His directive didn’t change former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s 2001 edict that federal officials look for legal grounds on which to deny FOI requests rather than to presume the public has a right to the information it seeks. How convenient.
I also found the timing of the president’s order interesting given that bipartisan support was building for the more stringent OPEN Government Act proposed last spring by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The bill we’re looking at now would indeed disallow governments from using some FOIA exemptions to explain away their failure to respond to requests within periods mandated by statute.
“The Bush-Cheney administration sent a powerful message governmentwide with the Ashcroft policy in 2001,” Leahy said after the president’s December order. “That shifted the upper hand in FOIA requests from the public to federal agencies. The new policy (foisted on us by Ashcroft) says, in effect, ‘When in doubt, don’t disclose, and the Justice Department will support your denials in court.’ It undermines FOIA’s purpose, which is to facilitate the public’s right to know the facts, not the government’s ability to hide them.”
When reacting to Bush’s order, Cornyn, a GOPer from the president’s home state, chose his words more carefully. “…More remains to be done to ensure that Americans citizens have access to the information they need and deserve.”
Good thing these two didn’t give up the good fight. They have my sincere thanks for this one.
While it’s highly unlikely lawmakers will vote on this bill before the end of the current term, the recent shows of support for the OPEN Government Act bode well for broad approval from the new Congress.