December 19, 2007

One Congressional Action To Cheer

Somewhere in the maelstrom of double-dealing in the dark on Capitol Hill yesterday in passing the omnibus bill, a small ray of sunshine broke out. Congress passed a bill that puts a few more teeth in the Freedom of Information Act, which will help citizens get information from their own government in a more timely manner. The improvements will ensure that delays hit the government where they least like it:

Taking aim at Bush administration secrecy, Congress yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would toughen the Freedom of Information Act and penalize government agencies that fail to surrender public documents on time.

The bill would speed the process of releasing government documents to the public under the FOIA, as the act is known, and broaden the information available to the public by including, for example, additional government contracting information. The measure passed the House by voice vote yesterday, less than a week after it was similarly approved by the Senate. ...

Under the measure, requests would be assigned public tracking numbers. Agencies that exceed the 20-day deadline for responses would be denied the right to charge requesters for research or copying costs.

The bill would strengthen the ability of people who sue over their FOIA requests to collect attorneys' fees and would establish an office at the National Archives to accept citizen complaints about unfulfilled FOIA requests, issue opinions and foster best practices.

If Washington dithers for 20 business days, requestors get their information free. That sounds like a bad local-TV commercial, but it provides an incentive for bureaucrats to handle these requests expeditiously. Those who have fought to get FOIA requests honored will attest to the attrition policy apparent in the federal response; they hope to tire people out before having to release information. Now, no one will want to be responsible for costing their agency the fees charged for the data.

Freedom depends on the openness of a representative government. Certainly, some small percentage of information needs to remain classified, and we have laws and processes to identify and protect that data. The rest should not just be unclassified but also easily accessible in order to ensure that the citizenry can hold government accountable. That's especially important for a behemoth like the federal government.

Congratulations to Congress for getting this one right.


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