Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., are co-sponsors of a proposed overhaul to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Photo courtesy of Leahy’s office.
Two senators, one a Texas conservative, the other a New England liberal, are pressing for the first overhaul in a decade of the federal government’s open-records law.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced Senate Bill 394 to revamp the Freedom of Information Act for the first time since the 1996 passage of the Electronic FOI Act.
Their bill would create an ombudsman office to mediate disputes between the government and FOIA requesters; make government-owned information held by contractors subject to the FOI Act; and require data and effectiveness reports on secret exchanges of critical infrastructure information.
Cornyn was keynote speaker at the National Freedom of Information Day Conference, convened in mid-March by VCOG President Paul McMasters, Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Ombudsman.
Cornyn told the Arlington audience, “In a healthy democracy, we the people need to know the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Transparency and openness uphold “the basic premise of our self-governed democracy that no government rules without consent of the governed,” he said. “When we’re talking about consent of the governed . . . we’re talking about informed consent. And informed consent is impossible without both a free and responsible press and open and accessible government.”
Cornyn and Leahy already have pushed through the Senate an initial FOI reform, requiring that all bills under congressional consideration make explicit any proposed exemptions to the FOI Act.
Why worry with such a thing? In recent years, legislators have used “obscure provisions tucked away in often-unrelated legislation to exempt some agencies and programs” from FOIA’s reach, according to a report in The Houston Chronicle.
The Cornyn/Leahy legislation would end this practice of lawmakers secretly carving out new FOI Act exemptions.
Still pending in a Senate committee is their proposal to create a 16-member commission to recommend ways to reduce Washington’s delays in FOIA response time.
“Agency delay has long been a nettlesome problem in FOIA implementation. Many FOIA requests are processed efficiently, but others drag out inexplicably, sometimes for years. Some agencies have not filled requests from the late 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though the requestors have repeated their requests for the information. The ‘Faster FOIA Act’ responds to the most common concerns of FOIA requestors by offering ways to solve these problems for the good of agencies and requestors,” the two senators said.
A record 15.6 million documents were classified last year, nearly double the number in 2001, according to the federal Information Security Oversight Office. Meanwhile, the declassification process, which made millions of historical documents available annually in the 1990’s, has slowed to a relative crawl, from a high of 204 million pages in 1997 to just 28 million pages last year.
According to the security oversight office, when given a choice, government employees also chose to keep new secrets longer than in years past: Two-thirds (66 percent) of the time government employees chose to keep new secrets for more than a decade.
At the same time, the flow of old secrets to the public dropped to its lowest point in nearly a decade – 28 million pages in 2004.
The government must declassify 260 million pages of existing old secrets by the end of 2006. But according to the OpenTheGovernment.org coalition, “at its current rate the government will complete the job in February 2013, but then will have to contend with what will likely be a bigger pile of secrets it created in the meantime.”