Opinion

House Starts 2016 With FOIA Reform To Open The Government To The People

It is fitting for the House to begin the new year by passing legislation to give the people more control of and transparency over their government.

As author and former California politician Robert Heinlein once said, “Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny.” Our post-9/11 federal government knows more about us than ever before, while we know less about its actions. Washington has lost the public’s trust, as it has only grown bigger, more powerful, and thus more hidden from public scrutiny.

Upon taking office, President Barack Obama famously declared that his administration was committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government. In reality, this administration has demonstrated a pattern of neglect for transparency.

According to the Associated Press in March 2015, the Obama administration “set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).” This non-partisan analysis concluded that this administration took longer to respond to public requests for government information, inappropriately denied records requests, more regularly failed to locate documents, and prolonged the backlog of public requests.

This isn’t a pattern of transparency; this is a continuation of secrecy. We shouldn’t let this persist. The content in government files is that of the American people, who have a right to know what their government is doing and how it is spending their money. Period.

While we in Congress can subpoena documents and compel testimony to get answers from the Executive Branch, the best tool is sunlight for the American people. Americans can hold their government accountable through the FOIA, a decades-old law that allows the public to make document requests for public information from the government.

Without this important tool, we would not know all that we know about the details of how the government allotted taxpayer money to the big banks during the 2008 Wall Street bailout, the government’s response to the terrorist attack at our consulate in Benghazi, Lois Lerner and the Department of Justice’s role in the IRS’s targeting of conservatives, and many other things that the administration would prefer not to advertise.

We must make FOIA protections for the people stronger and give Americans more tools to see into Washington. In this information technology-driven era, it should be easier, not harder for citizens to access government information.

First, we must change the assumption that government information is secret to a presumption of openness. The burden should be on agencies to demonstrate why information requested by the public may be withheld, as opposed to forcing the information seekers to justify its release.

Second, technology should be used to make access to information simpler, broader and cheaper. My bill, H.R. 653, the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, would reduce the reliance on paper requests and responses that get lost in the shuffle and add wait time to requests.

Through the establishment of a single online portal for FOIA requesters, any member of the public can simply go online to submit a request for records from a single website. The cost of producing the documents should be reduced through this online process, thereby removing an additional excuse the government often uses to prevent transparency.

In working with House Oversight Committee Ranking Member [crscore]Elijah Cummings[/crscore], our bipartisan bill addresses these two barriers to information access and with its passage in the House of Representatives this week, we can put the power back in the hands of the people.

Our FOIA reform will help the Obama administration and future administrations in living up to a commitment of transparency and accountability that makes all public officials better stewards of the public’s trust.