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.)
Passed in 1966, the Freedom of Information Act gives the public the right to access government records, subject to nine exemptions for categories of information like national security, privacy, and when disclosure is prohibited by another law. The FOIA also gives the public the right to sue in court to enforce government compliance with the FOIA, and since our organization’s founding 45 years ago, Public Citizen has been central to protecting that right through the courts. We also work on an ongoing basis to pass legislation to strengthen FOIA so that more information will be available to the public.
The FOIA Improvement Act (S. 337) would do just that. It amends FOIA to codify the presumption of openness policy put in place by President Obama when he first took office, which requires the government to release information unless it there is a specific harm that would be caused by disclosure. Other changes will limit overuse of certain exemptions in the law and make it easier for the public to file FOIA requests, and allow automatic disclosures of frequently requested information.
The House passed a version of FOIA reform legislation earlier this year. Last minute changes to defang some of the provisions and attempt to entrench a parallel track in FOIA for national security-related issues led Public Citizen not to endorse that legislation. But, if the House took up the Senate bill or if the bills are conferenced and the last-minute changes that were made to weaken the House bill are removed, we could easily be in reach of passing meaningful reforms to FOIA before the law reaches its 50th anniversary on July 4. In fact, that’s the goal of open government advocates who have taken to Twitter using the hashtag #FixFOIAby50 to call for these important improvements to become law.
Granted, essentially the same bill passed the Senate in 2014, also under Unanimous Consent. And, similar legislation passed the House unanimously that year as well, but the two pieces of legislation were never reconciled and signed into law. It was recently revealed via a FOIA lawsuit that the Department of Justice was lobbying to keep the reform bill from becoming law in 2014. Public Citizen joined with partner groups to express to the administration our disappointment that it opposed the legislation last Congress and to call on President Obama to support the Senate FOIA amendments. Luckily, the pressure appears to have been successful because the President signaled that he would sign the FOIA legislation in the form that it passed the Senate.
This also being the week of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m hoping for the Luck of the Irish that we’ll see the House take up the Senate’s bill, or the two versions will be reconciled, and the bill won’t stall out as it did in 2014. Of course, it takes a lot more than luck to pass legislation—it takes people. So, I hope you’ll join in the fight to #FixFOIAby50 so that the law can cast an even brighter light into the workings of the government.
Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citzien’s Congress Watch division.
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