Openness Effort Trumps Partisan Gridlock in Congress

July 7, 2014 | 10:47 am
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the issues on which there is bipartisan agreement in Congress. Fortunately, strengthening Freedom of Information (FOIA)  is one of them.

Earlier this year, the House unanimously approved a FOIA reform bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (CA), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Democrats, Elijah Cummings (MD), the committee’s ranking member, and Mike Quigley (IL).

Improved FOIA policies will allow the public to gain better access to government information.

This June, another bipartisan team, Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (VT) and Republican Sen. John Cornyn (TX) introduced their FOIA reform bill.

The Senate legislation has a good chance of passage, assuming it is not the victim of procedural fights about other issues. Nothing can be assumed in the Senate, fraught as it is with tussles over process.

But if the Senate bill makes it through, there is a good chance that a final bill will be negotiated between the House and Senate that improves the public’s access to government information.

We all know that the public needs and deserves better access to information. In a perfect world, FOIA would almost be an after-thought, a process you went through only for obscure information.

Both House and Senate bills affirm that government information ought to be disclosed unless there’s a very good reason for confidentiality.

This was a message that President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder pushed early in the Administration’s first term. Holder specifically told agencies that disclosure ought to be the default when the public asks for information, reversing a Bush Administration policy that assumed the government information should be kept confidential unless the public could demonstrate a reason justifying disclosure.

Unfortunately, many agencies seem to cling to secrecy.  Indeed, a recent study by the National Security Archives found that 55 agencies—more than half the federal agencies surveyed—were not complying with the presumption of openness guidance.

The public continues to be frustrated by the reluctance of some federal agencies to release data that is crucially important to the public. A case in point was the effort by the Department of Navy to subvert FOIA requests for scientific data concerning toxic contamination of the drinking water at Camp Lejeune. The contamination may have harmed up to one million people who had lived or worked on the base over the past several decades. But the Navy urged that the scientific information on water modeling be redacted, claiming it was exempt from FOIA due to national security concerns.

In 2012, Sens. Leahy and Chuck Grassley (IA) challenged that national security claim, noting that such information had not been classified and had been routinely available to the public. What happened at Camp Lejeune, the Senators stated was “one of the worst environmental disasters in American history” to occur at a domestic military base.

That’s why a stronger FOIA law is so important. It gives FOIA advocates much stronger ground on which to make their case. Both bills would make the “presumption of openness” the law of the land, not just something a President tells agencies to do. That idea should be something all lovers of democracy, openness and scientific integrity, can celebrate.