Open government is one of the most basic requirements of a healthy democracy. The default position of our government must be one of openness. If records can be open, they should be open. If good reason exists to keep something closed, it is the government that should bear the burden to prove that need — not the other way around.
We’ve made significant progress in the past year toward reforming the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but more remains to be done to preserve the open-government principles on which the United States was founded. So I continue working with my colleagues in Congress to push these important reforms forward.
While much of the FOIA reform efforts, to date, have focused on providing access generally, more can be done to improve the process specifically. Access to information is undoubtedly essential, but so is accelerating the rate at which requests are fulfilled. Access is of little value when requests for information are subject to lengthy delay.
President Bush in December signed an executive order enhancing current FOIA policies. The move is one important step toward more sunshine in government.
The president’s directive moves the country forward, toward strengthening open government laws and reinforcing a national commitment to freedom of information. This executive order affirms that FOIA has provided citizens with important information about the functioning of government. It directs FOIA officials to reduce agency backlogs, create a process for everyday citizens to track the status of their request and establishes a protocol for requesters to resolve FOIA disputes short of filing litigation.
The executive order creates a FOIA Service Center from which requesters can obtain information on their requests and track request status; creates a FOIA public liaison, who acts as a supervisor of FOIA personnel and is available to resolve disputes between the requester and the government; and requires each chief FOIA officer to review its agency’s practices, including the use of technology, to set concrete milestones and specific timetables to reduce backlogs and efficiently administer its FOIA responsibilities.
Other important progress was made throughout 2005. In June, the Senate passed the legislation that Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and I authored to bring increased sunshine to the federal legislative process. This was another key step toward strengthening government openness, and hopefully the House of Representatives will quickly pass this important legislation. This reform creates additional legislative transparency by requiring that any future legislation containing exemptions to requirements be “stated explicitly within the text of the bill.”
In addition, we introduced the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act (OPEN Government Act, S. 394) last year and a separate bill to establish an advisory Commission on Freedom of Information Act processing delays. A hearing examined the OPEN Government Act. Congress should pass this law as quickly as is possible.
But more remains to be done to ensure that American citizens have access to the information they need. One positive and welcome step in this area would be to provide additional and dedicated funding for FOIA resources, to address request backlogs. This could be accomplished in a way similar to how Congress offered assistance to local law enforcement through providing additional funds so they could address their DNA backlogs or assistance to the FBI to address its backlog of un-translated intercepts of terrorists’ telephone calls. Additional funding dedicated to this problem will speed the rate at which information is given to the requesters. Working toward these goals will ensure that we continue to ensure the public’s access to information.
Our founders understood that a free society could not exist without informed citizens and open, accessible government. As James Madison wrote: “A people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Congress must continue its work to restore and strengthen its commitment to open government and freedom of information.
Cornyn, R-Texas, is the author, along with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., of the OPEN Government Act (S. 394). He previously served as Texas attorney general, Texas Supreme Court justice and Bexar County district judge.
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