Pushing back at what they say has been one of the most secretive administrations in decades, congressional Democrats are marking “Sunshine Week” with bills to increase public access to government activities and protect whistle-blowers who expose wrongdoing.
The House on Wednesday was to vote on four open government bills, including one aimed at government foot-dragging in answering the millions of Freedom of Information Act requests it receives every year.
Another, sparking a veto threat from the White House, would reverse a Bush administration decision making it easier for presidents to withhold their own records from public scrutiny.
Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile was holding a hearing on a parallel FOIA bill promoted by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.
In prepared statements, media representatives stressed the importance of public access to timely information on government decisions that affect their lives.
Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press and a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a media coalition, related how it took a year for an AP reporter to get lab reports on lead levels in lunch boxes that the Consumer Product Safety Commission had deemed safe. The tests revealed that one lunch box in five contained lead levels that some medical experts considered unsafe.
“Why did it take a year for the commission to respond to a relatively simple request that FOIA says it was supposed to answer in 20 working days?” Curley said.
Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archives, a private research institute, offered data showing that seven agencies have unanswered FOIA requests dating back more than 10 years.
The House and Senate bills would impose penalties and incentives to ensure that agencies abide by the 20-business-day deadline for responses and give requesters a means to track the status of their requests.
The House bill goes a step further in restoring a “presumption of disclosure” standard that obliges agencies to release requested information unless there is a finding that such a disclosure could do harm.
That would overturn a memo issued by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks advising against the release of information when there was uncertainty over security or law enforcement exemptions.
Sabina Haskell, editor of the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer, told the Senate panel in her prepared remarks about a case in which a weekly newspaper in Vermont asked for an architect’s drawing to illustrate a story on a new handicapped-accessible ramp outside the town hall. The newspaper was denied because of Homeland Security concerns, she said.
“It’s hard to understand how a wooden ramp and railings, built of pressure-treated lumber, could be viewed as a security risk,” she said.
The 40-year-old FOIA law was a promise that people could find out what their government was doing “in all but a few kinds of highly sensitive or confidential matters,” Curley said. “The law does back them. But in many cases the government doesn’t back the law.”
Democrats claimed that situation has worsened under the Bush administration.
“For the past six years, we have had an administration that has tried to operate in secrecy, without transparency, without the public having knowledge about their action,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and sponsor of the legislation. “Well, this week, Congress is finally pushing back.”
As part of its Sunshine Week, House Democrats also are bringing up a bill that would rescind a Bush executive order in 2001 giving current presidents and vice presidents authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely.
Other bills would require that presidential libraries disclose the source of their funding, improve protections to whistle-blowers and increase transparency in federal contracting.
The administration, in a statement, said Bush would be advised to veto the presidential records bill because it would “invite unnecessary litigation, is misguided and would improperly impinge on the president’s constitutional authority.”
The White House also issued a veto threat on the whistle-blower bill, saying it was unconstitutional and could compromise national security.
Sunshine Week, March 11-17, is a three-year-old national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is intended to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others.