Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category

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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Tax watchers and nonprofits have been waiting to hear four little words from IRS Commissioner John Koskinen … and they may have just heard them.

Those words? “[A]nd other (c) organizations,” spoken last Friday in an interview with Tax Analysts Magazine. In that interview,Commissioner Koskinen said for the first time that a new definition of political activity will apply beyond just 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations.

Why are those words so critical? Nonprofits organized under section 501(c) of the tax code are allowed to do some political activity without disclosing the source of their funding. Those groups have poured more than $100 million into our elections just this cycle, all without having to tell voters who is buying the ads they’re seeing. The IRS is currently working on new rules that could clarify the definition of political activity and drive political spending to groups that do disclose their donors.

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The US Chamber of Commerce just published another blog post slamming an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rulemaking that could clarify the rules for nonprofits and reduce the influence of undisclosed political spending (like the more than $35 million the Chamber spent in 2012). The Chamber points out that vague rules are bad rules, and that the IRS’s first draft of proposed rules was deeply flawed. We agree!

The IRS also agreed that the proposed rules needed revision — that’s why the IRS is revising the rules and planning to reissue a new draft in early 2015.

The Chamber piece points out that unclear rules can have a chilling effect on democratic participation, which is precisely why tax law experts formed the Bright Lines Project five years ago (full disclosure, now housed at Public Citizen). The current rules that define political activity for nonprofits are based on the vague notion that IRS agents will be able to evaluate all the “facts and circumstances” surrounding each case to determine if something is political or not. Better would be bright-line definition for political activity to ensure that nonprofits know what they can and can’t do when it comes to political activity.

We agree with the Chamber that the first draft of the rules didn’t quite get there, and would have prevented nonprofits from participating in our democracy in ways that should be encouraged (like hosting debates and holding get-out-the-vote drives). So we’re glad to see the IRS taking another crack at fixing this important problem with the existing system.

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