Archive for the ‘Open Government’ Category

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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a photo of Rick Claypool, online director for Public Citizen's Congress WatchThe corporate right wing is unleashing one of its more tired ploys in an attempt to smear our campaign to stop corporations from secretly distorting elections via front groups and shell companies.

The ploy is to label a policy proposal as “too partisan,” regardless of how much broad bipartisan support it has.

Then repeat.

And then repeat (ad nauseam).

In this case, we’re talking about a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule to require corporations to disclose their political spending, a reform supported by 77 percent of Americans across the political spectrum, and 91 percent of recently surveyed business leaders.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, issued a missive calling on the SEC to ignore Public Citizen and the more than 600,000 people (many of whom are investors) who have called on the SEC to bring corporate dark money into the light.

The Issa missive specifically mentioned Public Citizen. Here are a few examples:

“… Public Citizen … is spearheading outside efforts to pressure the SEC to adopt a political disclosure rule.”

We can’t take all the credit, but thanks for noticing our hard work.

“… Public Citizen, a group with a history of calling for investigations of groups organized under section 501(c)(4) …”

Issa means 501(c)(4) groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS. Guilty as charged – with pride.

Public Citizen has a history of demanding that the IRS and the FEC investigate tax-exempt groups.”

To protect taxpayers by making sure our tax dollars don’t wind up subsidizing partisan corporate propaganda? Absolutely.

Issa’s intention seems to be to insinuate something unseemly about transparency about corporate political spending.

But the fact is that secret corporate spending is a tremendous problem for both the general public and for investors.

As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s reckless ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations can keep their political spending secret simply by funneling their political dollars through trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and dark money outfits like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS.

Union members can look up filings with the Labor Department to find out how their labor organization is spending money in politics. Residents of areas being blasted with super PAC ads can conduct research to find out who is behind them.

Why should the likes of Walmart, Exxon Mobil, Bank of America and Monsanto be allowed to spend in secret?

We don’t think they should – and neither do most Americans.

The issue of transparency of corporate political spending is neither a partisan issue nor a special interest issue.

It is a public interest issue, and one we proudly support.

Want to be involved?

Join the more than 600,000 people who have called on the SEC to disclose corporate political spending.

Rick Claypool is online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. Follow him on Twitter at @RickClaypool.

By Darci Kovacs

In order to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Public Citizen is pushing for a constitutional amendment to limit spending in elections. Already, the fight to get corporate money out of politics has 16 states on its side – almost half the number of states it would take to ratify an amendment.

Now, after an intensely successful two months—with Oregon, Delaware, West Virginia, Maine and Illinois all backing a constitutional amendment—Public Citizen is taking the fight to overturn Citizens United to Congress for the rest of the summer.

So far, 111 lawmakers have co-sponsored such an amendment in this legislative session. But, 111 does not come close to the 67-vote supermajority in the Senate and 290-vote supermajority in the House of Representatives necessary to pass one.

So in the next month, Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People campaign is taking the momentum from the states that have backed an amendment and calling or visiting lawmakers who have failed to co-sponsor a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

To get lawmakers on board, we need your help.

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