When President Barack Obama took office, he pledged that transparency would be one of the touchstones of his presidency. Now, nearing the end of eight years in office, he has the opportunity to make good on that promise.
Last week, Congress finally approved long-awaited and hard-fought reforms to the Freedom of Information Act, which allows journalists and the general public to obtain information on how their government works, or doesn’t work.
The reform package (S.337), which is expected to become law in the next few days, is a significant step to undo the culture of secrecy that’s unfortunately become the norm in Washington, D.C.
Under the Obama administration, the law has become terribly broken. Agencies are required to respond in 20 days, but bureaucrats have made a habit of slow-walking document requests or denying access altogether. Agencies find ways to invoke any one of nine exemptions under the current law, effectively creating an unlawful presumption in favor of secrecy, as a January report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform put it.
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The numbers speak for themselves. Last year, more than one in six requests were denied, a total of more than 129,825 cases. In more than 77 percent of cases – an all-time high – people received either heavily redacted files or nothing at all, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Numerous requests are still pending after almost a decade. In one notable case, the Project on Government Oversight complained that a 2011 request has been open so long that the staffer left the group, earned her master’s degree, worked on Capitol Hill and returned to the project.
Watchdog groups, journalists and citizens have been forced to file lawsuits to get the information they’re legally entitled to receive.
Information has regularly been subjected to additional levels of review from political officials at the White House, where any documents deemed potentially “problematic” were withheld from public release. Most Americans probably believe the highest classification of government information is top secret. Who’d have thought the hardest information to obtain is unclassified, but embarrassing?
This culture of secrecy breeds contempt for government and erodes the public’s trust in the very institutions intended to serve them. No wonder Americans’ trust in government is at an all-time low.
The legislation passed last week isn’t perfect. More can be done to limit the various exemptions used to hide information, for example the “inter-agency” exemption.
But the bill is a welcome shot of adrenaline to a lethargic FOIA process. For the first time, the legislation will mandate a “presumption of openness,” meaning that agencies will now have to demonstrate why information should be withheld, as opposed to forcing citizens to justify why it should be released.
It also takes advantage of the internet to make records available online through a single FOIA portal, and it prevents agencies from collecting any fees if they don’t turn over information in the 20 days required by law.
It’s still amazing to me that we can readily obtain information about almost anything we want to know – as long as it isn’t information about our government.
The reforms, for which I have been fighting for three years, are a welcome, long-overdue upgrade to the nation’s transparency laws. It will help make access to government information simpler, broader, cheaper and easier. It’s a step in the direction of the open and responsive government we deserve.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, represents California’s 49th Congressional District. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.