After overcoming a hold placed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), the Senate unanimously passed the OPEN Government Act last week, which would expedite government agency responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT) hoped that the legislation would boost transparency in an administration characterized by stonewalling:
As the first major reform to FOIA in more than a decade, the OPEN Government Act will help to reverse the troubling trends of excessive delays and lax FOIA compliance in our government and help to restore the public’s trust in their government.
A new analysis from the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government documents the extent of the administration’s secrecy. The report notes “current government handling of FOIA requests is deteriorating” across the government agencies. Some highlights:
– Two of every five FOIA requests filed in 2006 were not processed.
– Number of exemptions cited to support the withholding of information has increased 83% since 1998.
– The number of FOIA denials increased 10% in 2006.
– Cost of processing FOIA requests is up 40 percent since 1998, even though agencies are processing 20 percent fewer requests.
– “Most people are waiting longer” for FOIA information.
Additionally, the report notes that the DOJ is “consistently granted the lowest percentage of [FOIA] appeals of any agency — only 4% in 2006.” The DOJ’s “rate of grant-making is down 70%” than that of President Clinton.
The administration’s refusal to comply with FOIA requests is particularly relevant to current investigations into major scandals. The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has used FOIA to gather information related to the administration’s e-mail destruction in the attorney scandal. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff recently used a FOIA request to expose that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales “has never addressed Dick Cheney’s failure to comply with the executive order on classified information.”
The report adds: “There has been a clear shift toward less disclosure by the current administration. When agencies did get around to responding, they were increasingly stingy.” In contrast, the “OPEN Government Act will help ensure that these important values [of transparency] remain a cornerstone of our American democracy,” said Leahy.