Community Forum: More transparency in government needed
This week’s writer is Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Vermont’s senior U.S. senator and author of the FOIA Improvement Act and of several other laws to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. He was installed in the FOIA Hall of Fame in 1996 for his leadership in expanding the public’s right to know. The New England First Amendment Coalition presented Leahy its top award in February for his lifetime commitment to freedom of the press and open government. Sunshine Week is March 13-19.
Sunshine Week is a time to commemorate and take stock of a central pillar of our democracy: transparency. Any government that claims to be a democracy must not operate in secret. After all, a government of, by and for the people cannot be one that is hidden from them. An open government is a powerful antidote against corruption, secrecy and other forces that threaten to make leaders unaccountable to their citizens. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
One of the most powerful tools bringing sunshine into the halls of power is the Freedom of Information Act, our nation’s premier transparency law. This year, on July 4, FOIA turns 50. For five decades, the law has enabled Americans to access — and therefore influence — the workings of our government. Since its passage I have worked across the political aisle to strengthen it and to conduct oversight about how it is being enforced.
This week the Senate is on the verge of passing legislation that I coauthored with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to help bring FOIA into the 21st century. Our bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act codifies President Obama’s historic decree that federal agencies adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information. The presumption of openness establishes that, except in narrowly tailored circumstances, government information belongs in the hands of the people.
This policy was first put into place by President Clinton but then repealed by President Bush. President Obama reinstated it as one of his first acts in office. We cannot leave it to the next president to decide how open the government should be. We have to hold all presidents and their administrations accountable to the highest standard.
By codifying a presumption of openness, my bill establishes that sunshine, not secrecy, is the default setting of our government.
When my bill becomes law, FOIA requests can be submitted to any federal agency through a single website. Furthermore, agencies will be required to make frequently requested documents available online. By updating FOIA for the digital age, my bill puts government information in a format most accessible to the American people. In the last Congress my bill passed the Senate unanimously, but unfortunately House leaders failed to take it up. The Senate should recognize Sunshine Week by moving swiftly to pass the FOIA Improvement Act once again, and the House should follow suit. We must continue our bipartisan tradition of working together to improve the people’s access to their government.
While passing the FOIA Improvement Act will be an important step forward, we cannot stop there. We must also fight to protect the sunshine we have let in from those who want to obscure the decision making of elected officials.
Three weeks ago, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans emerged from a meeting that was closed to the press, to the public, and to all committee Democrats, to unilaterally announce that the committee would not hold a public hearing or vote on any Supreme Court nominee this year. The Republican Conference has rallied around this edict, and Republican senators have unconditionally refused to even meet with the President’s nominee.
The Republicans’ radical position ignores the history of the Senate, which has held public hearings to consider every Supreme Court nominee in the last 100 years. Since our first public hearings in 1916, we have brought more and more daylight to the Supreme Court confirmation process, which is now accessible to all Americans on television, webcasts, and other technology-driven platforms.
With this ever-improving access, Americans have justifiably come to expect an opportunity to view and participate in this confirmation process. After all, its outcome directly affects their constitutional rights and their lives. They know that when the cameras are rolling, there is transparency. They understand that when there is transparency, there is accountability.
By blockading a public hearing and a vote, Senate Republicans are effectively imposing an artificial sunset on a century of bipartisan transparency — all to the detriment of the American people. I hope that once the president upholds his constitutional duty by making a nomination, Senate Republicans will fulfill theirs and choose sunshine over secrecy in the Supreme Court confirmation process.
Sunshine Week is a time for all branches of government to demonstrate their commitment to transparency and accountability. This year I call on the Senate to honor Sunshine Week by passing my bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act, and by committing to holding public hearings on the next nominee to the Supreme Court. The American people deserve no less.
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