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EDITORIAL: Our right to know matters
It’s not particularly good form for us in the news business to complain to readers about the challenges we face when we go after a story.
It’s our job to work with our sources to ensure the public knows what is going on. It’s our job to put all of the government-speak into a more clear narrative and place that narrative into some current context.
When we do our job well, you have a better understanding of how our government is working for you, the taxpayers, who pay policy makers’ salaries.
To that end, we are pleased that the House of Representatives on Monday approved the “FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2015” (H.R. 653) that improves the Freedom of Information Act.
The House bill would change the presumption that government information is secret to a presumption of openness, and it would modernize the system for processing requests so that agencies provide records online in a publicly accessible format.
“Today’s vote to strengthen disclosure under FOIA shows that Congress can find common ground to make government more transparent and accountable,” Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI), said on Monday.
The bill’s sponsors, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, Elijah Cummings D-Maryland, and Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, as well as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, have crafted “bipartisan legislation that takes significant steps to address many challenges that requesters, including the media, face when using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), SGI says.
The bill, approved by a voice vote, would require government agencies to make information available to the public online. It also would require agencies to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosing records rather than keeping them secret.
The Associated Press reports the vote came as Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee released a report asserting the freedom of information law, enacted 50 years ago, is plagued by a number of problems, including a lack of communication from federal agencies, unreasonable redactions and abusive fees.
Backlogs of Freedom of Information Act requests have more than doubled since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the report said, and agencies are sitting on thousands of unfulfilled document requests.
This seems like it should be a given — the government should do what it can to ensure those who want access to records they are entitled to get it, without hassle.
The truth is, this is a constant source of frustration for journalists. Stonewalling is not uncommon. And some agencies believe that non-compliance means there will be no news report so they interpret the law loosely and then thumb their noses at journalists quoting the FOIA law, chapter and verse.
Of course, journalists can write a story regarding non-compliance, but that’s not always very effective for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the public’s eyes can begin to glaze over when the inner workings of the Right to Know law becomes the main theme of a 30-inch story.
It’s one of those issues that isn’t titillating or entertaining — however, it’s much, much more. It has to do with government being accountable to taxpayers. It has to do with the way our money is spent, our quality of life, our environment and health. It has to do with the safety of our roads and bridges.
It has to do with whether government serves us or ignores us; whether it has devolved to the point where after giving lawmakers their jobs, lawmakers their jobs, the public is told told to mind its business when it asks how lawmakers are doing those jobs.
Without metrics and accountability, any agency, organization or system is likely to rest on its laurels — or worse, inflate its performance. What gets measured gets done — and often improved.
Without open government and the ability to hold our elected representatives responsible, nothing gets done. We think there is likely a correlation between a relative lack of transparency and Congress’s dismal record of action.
We join the media coalition in encouraging the Senate to follow the lead of the House of Representatives and pass its FOIA reform measure, S. 337, out of the Senate so that the House-Senate can go to conference, and place the bill on Obama's desk before the 50th anniversary of the FOIA Law on July 4, 2016.