Congress was the focal point of two events during Sunshine Week 2013 (March 10-16). On March 12, the Congressional Transparency Caucus hosted an event examining recent progress concerning the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reform. A panel of experts explored ways in which the FOIA process could be improved and government records be made more easily accessible to the public.
The panel, titled Today’s Challenges and Tomorrow’s Opportunities, moderated by Daniel Schuman of the Sunlight Foundation, included Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Rick Blum, coordinator, Sunshine in Government Initiative; Gavin Baker, Open Government Policy Analyst at the Center for Effective Government; and Richard Pollock, investigative reporter, Washington Examiner. The event, described in the Caucus press release, acknowledges “though FOIA reform has made substantial strides in recent years, implementation issues remain. Today’s panel … examined these issues and possible solutions moving forward.”
“The Freedom of Information Act is the cornerstone of government transparency, and it is essential to allowing our citizens to oversee the government and hold us accountable. It’s more important today than ever before with the public’s trust in government at an all time low,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who co-founded and currently serves as co-chair of the Transparency Caucus. “Transparency is essential for rebuilding the public’s trust in government. An efficient and effective FOIA system that allows the public easy access to government information is a critical tool to increase access and rebuild that confidence.”
One day later, Schuman returned to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on open government. Schuman provided an overview as to the state of government transparency today, alluding to its various interpretations. “At its heart is the idea that the public has the right to know what the government is doing. Modern technology, when employed properly, makes government openness possible on an unprecedented scale and in ways previously unimaginable.” Schuman weighed in on the DATS Act, Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, Federal Advisory Committee Act Amendments & Presidential Library Donations Reform Act; and various White House initiatives, including Open Government Directive, Federal transparency websites (e.g., Data.gov), FOIA, Congressional Research Service (CRS), White House visitor logs, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) lobbying, and Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel Opinions. A transcript of his testimony is available at oversight.house.gov/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Schuman-Testimony.pdf.
On March 13, Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) unveiled a draft FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act, now known as H.R. 1211. “The draft bill is designed to strengthen transparency by ensuring that legislative and executive action to improve FOIA over the past two decades is fully implemented by federal agencies,” said Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), committee chairman. The act establishes presumption of openness; requires agencies to post frequently requested information; establishes a single portal for FOIA requesters, FOIAonline; strengthens the FOIA Ombudsman (Office of Government Information Service, or OGIS); strengthens oversight and review of FOIA compliance; strengthens dispute resolution; mandates FOIA regulations updates; and establishes a Chief FOIA Officer Council, modeled after the CIO Council. Other transparency and government reform bills during the committee’s markup during Sunshine Week included the following:
- H.R. 1162, the Government Accountability Office Improvement Act
- H.R. 1133, the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act
- H.R. 1104, the Federal Advisory Committee Reform Act
- H.R. 1233, concerning Presidential and Federal records, as amended
- H.R. 1234 Electronic Message Preservation Act, as amended.
The Washington, D.C.-based events for Sunshine Week 2013 beyond those on Capitol Hill included the following:
- A display of original FOIA documents at the National Archives, along with remarks by Archivist of the United States David Ferriero and Miriam Nisbet. There was also a demonstration of FOIAonline, a portal designed to expedite FOIA request processing across federal agencies. (Note: Unfortunately, the Safari browser is not supported.)
- Justice Department chief FOIA officer, Attorney General Tony West, led a discussion of federal agency improvements in FOIA administration since Attorney General Eric Holder’s guidelines were issued during Sunshine Week 2009
- The Center for Effective Government and Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) hosted two panel discussions examining transparency and national security issues in the Obama administration’s second term
- The National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee held a panel discussion about the effect of antiterrorism laws enacted globally after Sept. 11, 2001 on press freedom; Brennan Center hosted a panel discussion on Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform
- Newseum celebrated National Freedom of Information Day (March 15) with a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams, a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers, and the presentation of the American Library Association’s James Madison Award (posthumously) to Aaron Swartz, “an outspoken advocate for public participation in government and unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly articles.”
A calendar of events held across the country during Sunshine Week can be found at http://sunshineweek.rcfp.org/events.
Significant publications released during Sunshine Week this year include two reports from the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), Delivering on Open Government: The Obama Administration’s Unfinished Legacy and Freedom of Information Act Performance, 2012: Agencies are Processing More Requests but Redacting More Often, and the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States Transparency Report Card.
Congressional Transparency Caucus
Working from the premise that “all Americans have the right to know exactly what their government is doing and how their tax dollars are being spent,” Quigley and Issa joined together to form the Bipartisan Transparency Caucus in May 2011. Caucus members believe that “transparency in government is crucial to our democracy.”
In early March, Quigley, joined by Congessman Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), announced that they intended to re-introduce the Congressional Research Service (CRS) Electronic Accessibility Act, amending current law to allow the public release of congressional reports that CRS produces for Congress. Several initiatives have led to the release to the public of portions of the CRS reports collection, including organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists; federal agencies, such as those available through the U.S. Department of State website; academic institutions, such as those available through the University of North Texas Digital Library; and Open CRS, a website launched in 2005 by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).
“American taxpayers spend more than $100 million a year supporting the work of the Congressional Research Service,” said Lance. “It is good public policy to allow educators, students, members of the news media and everyday citizens to access CRS’ non-partisan taxpayer-funded reports. What is good for Congress should be good for the general public.”
Congressmen Quigley and Cummings also plan to reintroduce the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act creating “a single website where the public can easily search, sort and download all congressional reports from agencies ranging from the Food and Drug Administration to the Department of Justice.” H.R. 1974 was originally introduced in the 112th Congress and was unanimously passed by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Sunshine Week—A History
Florida Society Newspaper Editors (FSNE) launched Sunshine Sunday in 2002 in response to efforts by some Florida legislators to create scores of new exemptions to the state’s public records law. Several states joined in June 2003, participating in a Freedom of Information Summit in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE).
An inaugural grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation supported the first Sunshine Week in March 2005, and it has continued to support this nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative each year since. (The mid-March events coincide with James Madison’s birthday on March 16.) Sunshine Week 2014 will be held March 16-22.