Would the New OPEN Government Act Really Open Anything?

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After the House on Tuesday passed the OPEN Government Act to bolster the Freedom of Information Act and sent the bill to George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed,

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has a vital purpose: to inform American citizens about the conduct of their government. However, the Bush Administration has greatly expanded the veil of secrecy and undermined the Freedom of Information Act. The Administration’s actions run counter to the values of our democracy, the public’s right to know, and the ability of American citizens to hold their government accountable. The passage of the OPEN Government Act takes a first step toward strengthening FOIA and restoring transparency and accountability to our government.

FOIA has long been broken–even before Bush. It sometimes takes years–even a decade–to get a FOIA request fulfilled. And, of course, much information is often withheld. I’ve had the State Department respond to requests nine years after I’ve submitted them–and long after I had any need for the documents. And recently I asked the Department of Interior for records related to a contract covering computer services provided to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office by a company run by a fellow who paid more than $1 million in bribes to Republican Representative Duke Cunningham. (Don’t ask why the Interior Department was involved.) I was told the material would be withheld under one of FOIA’s many elastic exemptions. So will the new legislation make any real difference?

For an answer, I turned to Steven Aftergood, who produces Secrecy News. He says:

The new legislation makes several valuable procedural changes. It will increase pressure on agencies to answer FOIA requests in weeks rather than years. It will make it easier for requesters to track FOIA requests and to win fee waivers. It will strengthen the position of those requesters who litigate denials of their requests.

On the other hand, it does not alter agencies’ ability to withhold information, which is of course the heart of the process. Whatever was withheld from requesters previously can still be withheld. So even if the law is faithfully implemented, it could just mean speedier denials.

Well, at least I won’t have to wait so long to be turned down.

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And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

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