Politics & Policy

FOIA, FYI

Openness in government.

During this Congress, members on both sides of the aisle have fought to enact strong earmark reforms designed to promote an environment of openness and transparency in connection with government spending. I strongly support earmark reform and transparency because it will provide the American people with information about how their money is spent. This will ensure greater accountability, which benefits us all.

#ad#To me, earmark reform and other open-government reforms should be embraced by conservatives, liberals, and anyone who believes in the freedom and the dignity of the individual. From my vantage point in Washington, it’s about holding accountable the politicians who continue to grow the size and scope of the federal government. And it’s about holding accountable the bureaucrats who populate the federal government’s ever-expanding reach over individual liberty.

That is why I feel so strongly about reforming the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. FOIA, enacted more than 40 years ago, requires a legislative update to ensure it actually works for the citizens of this country. When operating properly, FOIA is indispensable in shining light on government policies, good and bad. Patrick Henry famously observed that “the liberties of a people never were, or ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.” Reforming FOIA will help ensure the public’s right to know and legitimize the consent of the governed.

Today, impediments prevent many from timely obtaining government information. Some agencies take years to even start working on requests. Far too often when citizens seek records from our government, they are met with long delays, denials and difficulty. Federal agencies can routinely and repeatedly deny requests for information with near impunity. Making the situation worse, requesters have few alternatives to lawsuits to appeal an agency’s decision.

And when requesters do sue agencies, the deck is stacked in the government’s favor. Courts have ruled that requesters cannot recover legal fees from agencies who improperly withhold information until a judge rules for the requester. That means an agency can withhold documents without consequences until the day before a judge’s ruling. Then the agency can suddenly send a box full of documents, render the lawsuit moot and leave the requester with a hefty legal bill. Senate Judiciary Committee hearings have revealed instances of this very practice. And while the agency gets away scot-free, the requestor is left with large legal bills.

In the meantime, the delay can keep mismanagement and wasteful practices hidden and unfixed. Judiciary hearings have documented FOIA’s use in uncovering significant overspending and government misconduct.

For instance, documents obtained through FOIA requests revealed up to $4 billion of cost overruns on the international space station.

Additionally, reporters for Knight Ridder used FOIA to uncover hurdles that veterans who fought bravely for our country have trouble obtaining the medical benefits they deserve upon returning home. Thousands died waiting for their benefits, many more received wrong information. Legal fees alone topped $100,000 along with the time and effort. Few citizens have such time and budgets.

To address problems of long delays and strengthen the ability of every citizen to know what its government is up to, Senator Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and I introduced bipartisan legislation to reform the FOIA. This legislation was reported from committee with bipartisan support and awaits action by the full Senate.

Our bill, the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007 (the “OPEN Government Act”), would close loopholes in FOIA that can lead to waits of months — or even years — for requested information.

The bill would direct agencies to institute tracking systems and hotlines so the public can easily follow their request. And it would also create a FOIA ombudsman position to review agency FOIA compliance and to suggest alternatives to litigation. Finally, our legislation would set up incentives for agencies to act on FOIA requests in a timely fashion. Some have raised concerns the bill might force disclosure of sensitive law-enforcement information, so Sen. Leahy and I agreed to changes that ensure this will not occur.

The bill has the support of business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, media groups and over a hundred advocacy organizations from across the political spectrum. We owe it to all Americans to help them know what its government is up to and make our great American democracy even stronger.

Like earmark reforms, this bill will make our government more open and therefore more accountable to its citizens. I am hopeful that the Senate will pass this bipartisan legislation soon.

– John Cornyn is a United States senator from Texas.

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