OPEN Government Act: Implementation
Now that President Bush signed the OPEN Government Act of 2007 into law, how will federal agencies implement the new reforms?
Leahy & Cornyn Push Congress to Be Open About New FOIA Carve-outs
In the days before Sunshine Week, Senators Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT) and John Cornyn (R-TX), in many respects the generals leading the charge for open government, have introduced the OPEN FOIA Act, which pushes Congress to clearly disclose any legislation that would put information beyond the public's reach through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
With over 30 bills affecting government transparency in the 110th Congress thus far, some provisions would make documents secret without anyone noticing and no public debate. In fact, finding these provisions early enough engage in a discussion about them can be full-time work.
"Either poorly drafted or intentionally stuck in the darks corners of legislation, these ideas need to be vetted carefully," said SGI coordinator Rick Blum. "Some get shot down quickly, others are rewritten to be less damaging. But some still sneak through, I'm sure. The OPEN FOIA Act would help the public at least find these secrecy proposals so we can at a minimum discuss and debate them openly."2008-03-12
Media coverage of budget proposal to end the Ombudsman
UPDATED SGI Coordinator Rick Blum speaks on the National Archive's Office of Government Information Services -- the FOIA ombudsman -- on FAIR's Counterspin (Feb. 22)
Brooke Gladstone of "On The Media" speaks with Rebecca Carr of Cox News:
Other media coverage of the ombudsman issue:
President's budget would end independent FOIA ombudsman -- after 35 days
Buried in the thousands of pages of budget documents released today is a paragraph that would eliminate the newly created independent FOIA ombudsman within the National Archives and assign responsibility for carrying out its functions back to the Justice Department.
SGI today sent a letter to key lawmakers objecting to the proposal.2008-02-04
President Bush Signs S. 2488 into Law
President Bush on Monday signed the FOIA reform bill, S. 2488 into law. This is a big win for open government and the public. 2008-01-02
Clay lays out case for FOIA reforms on House floor
Rep. William Lacy Clay summarizes the case for FOIA reform before the full U.S. House of Representatives passes H.R. 1309.2008-08-22
House sends FOIA bill to president
The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the FOIA reform bill that the Senate passed last week, sending the measure to the president to sign into law. Read the SGI statement. 2007-12-19
Senate Passes Revised FOIA Reform
SGI applauds the Senate for approving FOIA reform legislation and encourages the House to act switfly. Read more in our statement. 2007-12-14
Hearing on FOIA Amendments (2007)
Rep. William Lacy Clay, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Archives, Census and Information Policy, posted comments about FOIA from a 2007 congressional hearing.
Hazardous Secrecy Proposal Re-emerges
The Pentagon is asking Congress to write a law nearly identical to one that Congress rejected last year that would hide information about how the government and private sector are preventing and preparing for accidents and other releases of chemical, biological and other hazardous materials.
For more, see the SGI Analysis of Defense Department proposal.2007-05-03
House Panel Strips Broad Loophole from Defense Bill
The House Armed Services stripped a broad secrecy provision from the defense authorization before approving the must-pass legislation.
S. 849 Sponsors & Co-Sponsors
The following senators have sponsored or co-sponsored S. 849, the OPEN Government Act.
Talking Points on the OPEN Government Act (S. 849)
The OPEN Government Act (S. 849) and its House counterpart, H.R. 1309 (The Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007) make simple, common sense reforms to the way federal agencies process requests for documents under FOIA.
Despite its flaws, the FOIA still is an important tool to keep the public informed. In May 2007 alone the law has helped the public learn that:
For more, see:
Press Coverage Update
Early Push in House Gave FOIA Reform Momentum
When the House of Representatives approved legislation to reform the FOIA in March 2007, it was the culmination of hard work by the bill's sponsors. On July 26, 2006, Rep. Todd Platts (R-PA) held a hearing to outline FOIA's problems. Tonda Rush, who leads the National Newspaper Association, testified on SGI's behalf. Months later, as the session of Congress was winding down, on September 27, 2006, the House subcommittee approved FOIA reforms.
In January 2007 the FOIA reforms had to begin the process of getting through Congress from the beginning as a new Congress came to Washington. As Congress was hiring staff and organizing its committees, FOIA reform was on the early agenda. On March 8, 2007, a key House committee approved the bill. 2007-08-31
Hold on OPEN Government Act
A "secret hold" had been placed on FOIA reform legislation, stalling its advancement through the Senate, according to a statement released today by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Sen. Leahy urged the Senate leadership to vote soon on S. 849. He noted broad support among news media, public interest and other groups for the legislation. 2007-05-24
Here's a quick update on FOIA reforms in the Senate:
Non-Media Support for OPEN Gov't Act
S. 849 has broad support from media groups and others across the ideological spectrum. Letters from more than 100 organizations and the following groups have been sent to Senate leaders.
House, Senate talks continue to overcome obstacles to FOIA reform
The House and Senate continue to actively pursue improvements to the way agencies fulfill FOIA requests.
Both the House and Senate have approved FOIA reforms & negotiators are actively working to resolve differences between the bills. Whether the differences can be resolved for Congress to approve the reforms by the end of the year are unclear.
Both versions would create a new federal ombudsman to help agencies improve their FOIA operations and help requesters with individual requests, create a tracking system so the public could easily find out the status of requests and improve transparency of agency FOIA operations.2007-12-12
SGI Applaudes House Oversight of New FOIA Ombudsman Office
The Sunshine in Government Initiative applauds the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives for holding an oversight hearing today on the National Archives' new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), created by the OPEN Government Act (P.L. 110-175), the most comprehensive reforms of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in a decade.
"Last year, Congress created a place for the public to go for independent, fair assistance in resolving FOIA disputes," said Rick Blum, the coalition's coordinator. "We now know that the House and Senate appropriators support this office, and we're excited this independent office will start working soon. Now the Archives can begin shaping how this office works, using models in the many states that have these offices already in place," Blum said.
"Today's hearing shows Congress wants an independent ombudsman at Archives to start helping the public," Blum said. Blum told the congressional panel that "the media and citizens often run into roadblocks with government agencies, and there is no recourse except an expensive lawsuit. OGIS will provide a new, much-needed alternative to resolve FOIA disputes."
The Sunshine in Government Initiative is a coalition of media groups committed to promoting policies that ensure the government is accessible, accountable and open. Public oversight is the ultimate safeguard of democracy. It is the inalienable right of citizens to examine and judge their government; and that right is served when news media act on behalf of the public to gain access to information.
Media Group Support for the OPEN Government Act
Here's a selection of the many letters and editorials calling for Congress to act on FOIA reform.
SGI Recommends First Steps for FOIA Ombudsman
Will Justice absorb the independent FOIA ombudsman?
Senate sponsors of the recently enacted FOIA reforms and open government advocates (including SGI) were swift to criticize rumors that the president plans to shift the independent ombudsman functions of the Office of Government Information Services from the National Archives to the Justice Department. Read more in The Secrecy File (Cox News) and The Gate (National Journal). 2008-01-30
U.S. House Hearing Focuses on FOIA Problems
The Freedom of Information Act has become "less reliable, less effective, and a less timely" tool, according to Tonda Rush, public policy director for the National Newspaper Association. Speaking on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, Rush told lawmakers that Congress should create an ombudsman to give the public an alternative to the courts to resolve disputes with federal agencies.
Ms. Rush told the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability that too often Congress itself writes laws exempting specific information, such as particular scientific research, from FOIA. Currently there are roughly 140 such laws putting information beyond the public's reach under FOIA.
Sen. Patrick Leahy told the committee that "the recent trend of creating exceptions is a mistake, especially when they are buried in legislation that we're not apt to see. That worries me. I mean, we should be doing just the opposite." Senators John Cornyn urged Rep. Platts, chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability, to create "meaningful consequences" for agencies that fail to comply with FOIA and meet deadlines.
The Freedom of Information Act at 40: Congress to examine reforms in hearing this week
July 24, 2006
After years witnessing an expansion of government secrecy in the nation’s capital and neglect of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Congress and the executive branch are taking a closer look at FOIA on its 40th birthday.
In Congress, the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Finance and Accountability scheduled a hearing on Wednesday, July 26, 2006, to assess how well the FOIA is working. The panel will hear testimony from congressional colleagues, the Justice Department, and FOIA users, including the Sunshine in Government Initiative. Agencies reviewed their FOIA activities in response to an executive order issued by President Bush in December 2005 and submitted Improvement Plans to the Justice Department last month. The FOIA was signed into law 40 years ago this month on July 4, 1966.
Background on FOIA: Government Falls Farther Behind
The government across the board is falling farther behind in responding to FOIA requests, according to a recent study by the Coalition of Journalists for open government. From 2004 to 2005, the backlog of requests grew, fewer requests were filled, requesters had to wait longer and the cost of each request grew. Despite these sobering findings, the government slashed investment in FOIA.
And the courts continue to be a stacked deck against the public. In 2005, the government won outright a majority of the time (56 percent) while the individual requester won in 1 in 30 cases (3 percent).
Congress Should Act to Require Agencies to Do More
Congress has stalled on passing the bipartisan “Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2005,” or OPEN Government Act (H.R. 867, S 394), which would make changes designed to help the public obtain documents from government. Most significantly, the bill would create a mediator who is independent of any federal agency to help resolve disputes. States such as New York, Florida, Virginia and many others have effective mediators that provide advice to the public and help settle disputes between state agencies and the public. The bill would also assign every request a tracking number, penalize agencies for delaying responses and make it easier for requesters to recover attorney fees for fighting improper agency denials.
Congress should not stop there. Too often secrecy provisions pass in the dead of night and create bad law. Congress should flag every bill that would close or open our government. Or leaders in Congress could ensure bills affecting the public’s right to know are reviewed by the committees with expertise in FOIA. Too many offices are understaffed or cannot afford efficient automated systems. Congress could invest adequate resources into agency efforts to disgorge documents. The current culture in Washington – written into policy by former Attorney General John Ashcroft – is to withhold documents whenever possible. Congress could give agencies incentives for doing a good job. Of the three branches of the federal government, FOIA applies only to the executive. Congress could apply the FOIA to Congress and the courts.
Nearly five years after September 11, now more than ever a free, informed public depends on strong laws, policies and practices promoting openness. In an environment of excessive secrecy in Washington, it’s heartening that some in Congress are paying attention to the Freedom of Information Act. Some change from Washington would be welcome.
Resources on the Web:
Subcommittee Hearing Announcement and Witness List:
Executive Order 13,392: Improving Agency Disclosure of Information (Dec. 14, 2005)
Coalition of Journalists for Open Government report on FOIA:
National Security Archive: 40 Noteworthy News Headlines Made Possible by FOIA, 2004-2006
OpenTheGovernment.org coalition report on agency FOIA Improvement Plans: