Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category

Unless we act, Arizona will lose its long-standing progressive campaign finance laws.

Earlier this year, a piece of state legislation (SB 1516) set in motion a plan that would reverse 20 years of state-required political spending disclosure and cripple the ability of Arizona’s Citizens Clean Election Commission to enforce Arizona’s campaign finance laws.

Some of the egregious provisions of the bill would:

  • minimize the state’s role in clean elections;
  • effectively delegate policing “dark money” compliance to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Washington, D.C.;
  • allow campaigns to spend money from their own funds in order to donate to other candidates;
  • reduce penalties for candidates that overspend; and
  • take away the right of state election officials to subpoena candidate records.

When he signed the bill, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey contended that the law would make it easier for everyday citizens to run for office – but how does an endless supply of undisclosed, “dark money” flowing in to campaigns make it easier for citizens to get involved in our democracy?

In reality, laws like SB 1516 make it increasingly more difficult for voices of everyday Americans to be heard over the avalanches of money that billionaires, corporations and dark money nonprofit organizations they funnel their spending through are able to play in politics. After the disastrous 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, these conduit organizations can collect and spend unlimited amounts to promote their special interests — so long as they keep their spending “uncoordinated” with candidates and parties. This new law would allow much more of that unlimited spending to occur without even any disclosure of who is really behind it by allowing Arizona political spenders to hide behind claims of federal tax exemption.

We need your help to bring the law back for a citizen referendum – so that Arizona citizens, and not the wealthy few, can decide if a murkier campaign finance system is in their best interest. State disclosure laws, like the one that was overturned by SB 1516, are the only antidote to this corruption of our democracy.

Before SB 1516 was passed, AZ’s Citizens Clean Election Commission was actively enforcing the important state campaign finance laws– but lawmakers catering to their big money donors schemed to write this bill to make sure that spending went back into the dark.

We need just 75,321 signatures to send SB 1516 to citizen referendum and give Arizona residents a say in whether dark money will continue to permeate their elections.

But the biggest loss of all would be the further weakening of our democracy.

Please join us in pushing for a citizen referendum to reverse SB 1516.

 

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By Jaimon Olmsted, advocacy intern for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division

50DaysOfFOIA

This July 4th will mark the 50th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). To honor the occasion, Public Citizen is joining our partners at OpenTheGovernment.org in the #50DaysofFOIA campaign, which highlights the importance of the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA, as well as the significance of the critical FOIA reform legislation that is currently pending in Congress.

The landmark FOIA law, enacted by Congress in 1966, gives the public the right to access government records — subject to only nine exemptions for categories of information like national security, privacy, and when disclosure is prohibited by another law. FOIA was designed to be relatively simple to use, as anyone can file a request for information from a government agency and appeal denials of those requests within the agency without legal representation. FOIA plays an essential role in our democracy by allowing regular individuals to monitor the government and hold officials accountable for their actions.

But FOIA is far from perfect. Federal agencies routinely withhold huge amounts of information by applying overly broad interpretations of the exemptions. Although someone requesting information can challenge in court assertions that an exemption applies, lawsuits are drawn-out and costly procedures that often could have been avoided by simply releasing the documents. For the most part, FOIA exemptions are not mandatory bars to disclosure, and agencies may use discretion and release the information in question, but they rarely do.

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This week marks Sunshine Week, when the media, civil society organizations and the government all join together to celebrate transparency and the power of open government. Harking back to the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” access to information is one of the most powerful tools used by watchdog groups like Public Citizen to hold government officials accountable and ensure they are acting in public’s best interest.

Sunshine Week is celebrated by numerous events across the country focusing on the many important facets of open government. Craig Holman, the Government Affairs Lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, presented on a panel during the 2016 National Freedom of Information Day at the Newseum on the need for greater political spending disclosures and other measures to limit corruption of our democracy. I will join our open government allies in a Twitter chat today (March 16) at noon Eastern time to shine a light on aspects of transparency initiatives that are in need of improvement. You can join the conversation at any time by following me on Twitter (@Susan_Citizen) or by searching for the hash tag #MoreOversight.

What’s more, this year, something monumental happened to mark Sunshine Week: Yesterday, under the leadership of Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Mass.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the U.S. Senate voted under Unanimous Consent to pass legislation that will improve the landmark public right-to-know law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA.)

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By Luana Wang

What do ghosts, political conspiracies, and taxes have in common?

If you answered, “the government secretly used tax dollars to fund paranormal research,” well … some might say you’re right, but that’s not what I was thinking of.

Those three things were also the focus of the latest congressional hearing on the IRS.

Congressional hearings on the IRS are like episodes of reality television: There are way too many of them that are just the same thing over and over again, most people are only watching for the carefully-orchestrated spectacle, and every once in a while you get a celebrity host aiming for a publicity boost.

In other words, they’re kind of a fantastic guilty pleasure. However, as in reality TV, any substantive issues were obscured by the drama and noise of people wanting to make a splash.

Over the course of this particular hearing, we heard:

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For more than four decades, the landmark right-to-know law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has given the public (and organizations like Public Citizen fighting on behalf of the public) an essential tool for prying open the veil of secrecy surrounding government activities. In the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants,” and FOIA is the beacon of light that’s bright enough to shine into the darkest recesses of the government.

But there are limits to the FOIA law’s reach. Nine official exemptions to the law prevent information from being released to the public concerning specific types of documents—for example classified information related to national security or information compiled for law enforcement purposes. Some of the exemptions are grossly overused; “Exemption 5,” for example, can indefinitely keep secret communications between and within agencies on issues like why one rule was enacted instead of a stronger safeguard.

From the start of his Presidency, Barak Obama has officially called for more openness by government agencies — including directing Attorney General Eric Holder to require agencies to disclose more information to the public, which Holder did in 2009. That policy, called “the presumption of openness,” directs agencies to disclose information to the public unless prohibited by law or if the agency can see a direct harm protected by one of the numbered exemptions.

But even though President Obama’s administration has a goal of being the most transparent ever, it’s imperative that his changes be reflected in the language of the FOIA law so that this presumption of openness remains in place after his adminstration.

Public Citizen and our partners in the open government community were very pleased when improvements to the FOIA law were passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives and even happier when U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a stronger bipartisan bill in the Senate. The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 2520) cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously earlier this month with more than 70 groups signing the letter of support drafted by Public Citizen and Openthegovernment.org.

Now, there are but a few short days to get this important legislation across the finish line before the end of the 113th Congress. Please let your senators know that you want to see critical improvements made to FOIA.

More can be done to increase the public’s right to know under FOIA, but S. 2520 is an excellent way to increase the amount of information “sunlight” shining on the workings of government.

Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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