The following blog post is one of seven that the New England First Amendment Coalition will publish during Sunshine Week, highlighting the need for government transparency and addressing freedom of information concerns throughout the New England states. When posted, these articles can be read here.
By Patrick Leahy
Sunshine Week is a time to celebrate one of our nation’s most basic values, the public’s right to know. Our very democracy is built on the idea that our government should not operate in secret. James Madison, a staunch defender of open government, whose birthday we celebrate each year during Sunshine Week, wisely noted that for our democracy to succeed, people “must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” Transparency enables the American people to hold their government accountable.
Pulling back the curtain on the workings of government agencies is not always popular and is certainly not without controversy. But it is often those moments of controversy that make clear why an open government is so vital. One of those moments was last year’s hard-fought release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, which detailed the CIA’s shocking use of torture during the Bush Administration. The release of this historic report was met with extreme opposition by those who wanted to keep in the dark a grim chapter in our history. But shedding light on the CIA’s actions demonstrated to the world that America is different: We acknowledge our mistakes so that we can learn from them. That is why I encouraged and supported Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in her efforts to release the report’s executive summary. And that is why I was appalled to learn of recent efforts to have the full report returned to the Senate, to keep it out of the hands of those in the executive branch who can learn from these mistakes and ensure that this never happens again.
There are many partisan fights in the Congress, but one area where I have brokered bipartisan agreement over the years is in passing laws that strengthen and improve the Freedom of Information Act, also known as FOIA. First signed into law in 1966 by President Johnson, FOIA has become the foundation on which all our sunshine and transparency policies rest. It remains an indispensable tool for Americans to obtain information affecting public policy, consumer safety, the environment and public health. It is relied on by journalists, educators and historians to research not only important issues of the day, but significant moments in our history. It helps bring to light controversy and it promotes public discourse.
Efforts to improve FOIA have always been bipartisan, and they always should be. More than a decade ago I reached across the aisle to lead the successful passage of the OPEN Government Act of 2007, a law that imposed stricter FOIA deadlines and increased transparency in the FOIA process. A few years later Congress passed my OPEN FOIA Act, which requires Congress to clearly state its intentions when providing statutory exemptions to FOIA in new legislation.
In time to truly honor the spirit of Sunshine Week this year, Congress has a chance to reaffirm its commitment to transparency by passing our bipartisan FOIA Improvement Act of 2015. It would codify the policy President Obama issued in his 2009 memorandum by requiring federal agencies to adopt a “Presumption of Openness” when considering the release of government information under FOIA. Under this approach, agencies may withhold records under FOIA exemptions only if they can identify a specific and foreseeable harm that may result from release of information, or if disclosure is otherwise prohibited by law. This policy, which embodies the very spirit of FOIA, was first put into place by President Clinton but then was discarded by President Bush. President Obama reinstated it as one of his first acts in office. By putting the force of law behind the Presumption of Openness, Congress can establish a transparency standard that will remain for future administrations and agencies to follow. My bipartisan bill will also make more information available for the public to access, and ensure that frequently requested records are available online. By passing the FOIA Improvement Act, the Senate can reaffirm the fundamental premise of FOIA: that government agencies’ information belongs to all Americans.
This year Congress has an opportunity during this 10th annual Sunshine Week to live up to the values of James Madison and renew its bipartisan commitment to an open government by passing the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015. I hope we come together to pass this bill to more deeply enshrine the people’s right to know, regardless of who occupies the White House in the future.
Patrick Leahy is a U.S. Senator from Vermont.