When Vermont's Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy shares the headlines with a Republican, it's usually because they're having some kind of conflict -- just ask Vice President Dick "Go *&%$! yourself" Cheney. But last week, media outlets nationwide reported on an unlikely alliance between Leahy and Texas Republican John Cornyn. The two senators are leading a bipartisan effort to update the Freedom of Information Act.
Known universally by its acronym, FOIA -- pronounced "foy-ya" -- the 38-year-old federal law gives journalists, researchers and average citizens the right to request information from federal agencies. It allows you to petition, say, the Environmental Protection Agency to find out which companies are producing toxic chemicals in your neighborhood. Provided, of course, that information hasn't been classified.
Leahy has long been a FOIA champion. In 1996, he sponsored an amendment to expand FOIA requirements to websites. That prompted a coalition of media organizations to induct him into the FOIA Hall of Fame.
"The enactment of FOIA was a watershed moment for democracy," reads a Leahy quote in a press release on Cornyn's website, "but this bulwark of open government is under assault. Liberals and conservatives both recognize a dangerous trend toward over-classification of information, at enormous cost to the taxpayers and risk to our citizens."
To remedy the situation, Leahy and Cornyn are cosponsoring two bills. One, with the racy title "Faster FOIA," would create a 16-member commission to study how to speed up the processing of FOIA requests; last week the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill, which is co-sponsored by Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, and unanimously approved it.
The other is the OPEN Government Act -- short for "Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2005." It creates a new FOIA ombudsman who will review FOIA compliance within federal agencies. It will also grant bloggers and other Internet publishers the same status as journalists, who receive FOIA fee waivers based on their intent to publicize the information they obtain.
The OPEN Government Act also aims to close loopholes in the current law, which give government agencies the ability to classify a broad range of non-security-related information. Proponents of the bill point to statistics showing that classification has risen dramatically in the past 10 years. The number of documents classified by the government grew from 6.5 million in 1995 to a whopping 14 million in 2003. During that time, the number of documents declassified shrank to 43 million per year, down from 204 million.
Debra Hernandez, of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says the idea is not to eliminate classified documents. "The government needs to have secrets," she says. "But don't put stuff away that should be out in the open."
Last week, Hernandez's group sponsored the first "Sunshine Week," a campaign to spotlight FOIA and bipartisan efforts to strengthen it. The designation generated thousands of stories about the obscure legislation. It may not be a coincidence that both the Faster FOIA bill and the OPEN Government Act seemed poised to pass the Senate. David Carle, a spokesman from Senator Leahy's office, notes "There's good momentum this year."
But he adds that the forecast is not so sunny for Leahy's third FOIA bill, the Restore FOIA Act. Leahy's website claims the bill aims to close more loopholes, provide protections for whistleblowers, and eliminate immunity in civil lawsuits for companies that voluntarily disclose information. It also allows state and local authorities to apply their own sunshine laws to federal agencies, provided the information they seek is not classified.
Carle reports that despite having once received an endorsement from the White House, which has since been retracted, the legislation has no Republican co-sponsors. He predicts, "That one will have a tougher time."