Public Citizen has repeatedly called on Congress to pass legislation to reform and improve the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). During Sunshine Week in March, we praised the Senate for approving the FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337), and participated actively with a coalition of partner organizations in the #50DaysOfFOIA campaign urging Congress to finalize FOIA reforms before the law’s 50th birthday on July 4 th.
On June 13th our efforts paid off, as the House passed S.337, the same version of FOIA reform legislation already approved by the Senate, and sent it off to the President, who has already signaled his intent to sign the bill into law.
The landmark Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted by Congress in 1966, is an essential key to unlocking our democracy. FOIA enables Americans to monitor what the government is up to and hold the government accountable for its actions, by giving the public an enforceable right to access government records, subject to nine narrow exemptions. Unfortunately, the government’s implementation of the law has had some real issues, including overuse of exemptions, most notably exemption 5 for internal agency deliberations.
The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337) makes important changes to FOIA, including prohibiting the government from relying on exemption 5 to deny a FOIA requester records of internal agency deliberations created 25 years or more before the request was made. The FOIA Improvement Act also codifies the “presumption of openness” policy stated by President Obama on his first day in office. This will require the government to release information unless the agency anticipates that disclosure would harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption. Other improvements to the law will enhance the government’s proactive disclosure of frequently requested records, make it easier for a requester to submit a FOIA request online, limit the circumstances under which an agency can charge fees for a request when it misses the statutory deadlines for responding to that request, and expand the role of the government’s FOIA ombudsman, the Office of Government Information Services.
We look forward to the president signing this significant legislation and locking in place these new tools for increasing transparency.
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– Post written by Jaimon Olmsted, advocacy intern for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division
Last week Public Citizen was proud to join Senate Democrats to announce a new policy agenda to curtail big money’s influence in elections.
Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, joined nine senators and other progressive organizations outside the Capitol to debut a package of commonsense policies that will bring the voices of the people back to the electoral process.
Some of the parts of the #WeThePeople agenda would:
- Demand transparency from corporations, trade associations, and tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups that are playing in politics while keeping their donors secret;
- Close unethical lobbying loopholes that give special interests special access to government officials through lax lobbyist registration policies;
- Better enforce existing campaign finance laws by creating a new agency to serve as a campaign finance watchdog to hold candidates accountable;
- Slam shut the “revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington – a practice which rewards former bankers for taking roles in government in the very agencies that are meant to protect Main Street from Wall Street recklessness; and
- Overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision by constitutional amendment.
This month shareholders at Fluor Corporation and NiSource Inc. voted to approve resolutions that require the companies to disclose their political spending. Fluor is a global engineering and construction company and NiSource supplies natural gas and electricity to nearly 4 million customers in seven U.S. states. Support for corporate political spending transparency has been growing nationwide as more and more shareholders demand to know whether their companies are using their investments to engage in potentially risky political behavior or investing in issues that are not aligned with their corporate values.
In a great trend, some companies- more than half of the S&P 100– have moved to voluntarily increase transparency around their political spending, however many still prefer to hide their campaign and lobbying spending from public view. With the majority votes at Fluor and NiSource, shareholders are demanding transparency.
The recent majority votes at Flour and NiSource demonstrate the continued momentum for corporate transparency, but they are also significant because both companies are recipients of major government contracts. Fluor Corporation and its subsidiaries have been awarded over $470 million in federal contracts in fiscal year 2016 alone. NiSource was awarded almost one million dollars in government contracts in 2015 and 2016, and has been awarded almost $12 million since 2011.
By Cameron Berube
A new budget bill has just been released and it’s clear that voters are getting the losing end of a last-minute bargain forged to keep the government from shutting down.
Perhaps with the hopes that Americans would be too busy preparing for the holidays to notice, Congress has packed the “omnibus” mega budget bill that appropriates spending for agencies with ideological riders that blatantly favor corporate interests. And while several bad campaign finance riders were kept out of the package thanks to the hard work of our champs on the Hill, unfortunately there were still several disastrous provisions included in the just-released omnibus package.
Arguably the worst of the bunch, the budget bill includes a rider that prohibits the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from writing a rule requiring corporations to disclose their political spending. Currently, corporations are free to funnel secret money into our political process, drowning out the voice of the people and endangering our democracy and there is no way for Americans to know who is paying for what (or who).
For years now, Americans of all stripes have been calling on the SEC to take action so that investors and customers can make informed decisions and hold corporations accountable for the causes they support and the money they spend on elections. In fact, 88 percent of Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — support such a rule.
So while the lights are set to stay on in the Capitol, the American people will remain in the dark.
The budget should not be used as a bargaining chip. Millions of hard working Americans count on employment with the federal government to feed their families during the holiday season. However, when Big Money interests pack the budget full of poison-pill riders like this, we can’t support its passage. And when Congress can’t pass a budget, we put those jobs and those families at risk.
By Cameron Berube
In the wake of Citizens United, political spending in the 2016 elections already have reached dizzying heights. And since most companies refuse to disclose their political spending, it’s hard to know who’s backing who.
According to a new report from the Center for Political Activity (which benchmarks the political disclosure and accountability policies and practices of mutual funds), major mutual funds like Vanguard, which manages more retirement funds than any other firm in America, are doing next to nothing to encourage companies they hold large shares of to disclose how they use our money to influence policy.
So what are public companies doing with your money? Deregulating Wall Street? Gutting Medicare?
Americans are fed up with being drowned out by corporate interests. According to a 2015 poll, 88 percent of both Democratic and Republican primary voters agree that “the Securities and Exchange Commission should require corporations to disclose their political spending.”