By Lamar Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
February 26, 2005
Of all the rights we as Americans enjoy today, perhaps none are more important than the right to know what the government does in our name.
The primary tool citizens use to check on their government is the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.
This landmark law makes government information accessible to the people. It upholds the democratic principles that an American citizen has a right to know what the government does and that federal agencies, with some exceptions, must make official documents and records available to the public.
Under the law, any concerned citizen or media representative should be able to submit a request for information and get a timely response. If a federal agency finds that it cannot disclose certain documents, than it must state its reasons for not doing so. For example, papers that are classified in the interests of national defense, or that contain personal matters like Social Security numbers, are exempt from disclosure under the law. If an information request is denied, a citizen may challenge that decision in court.
The FOIA has provided a wide variety of information to countless individuals and members of the media since its inception. It has opened up the inner workings of the government, and in turn, made it more accountable to the American people.
But a disturbing trend in how the government complies with the law in recent years threatens to reverse these gains.
In short, federal agencies are becoming less responsive to citizens' inquiries. Contact information the public uses to request documents and records is sometimes inaccurate. Agencies have misplaced or altogether lost information requests and in many cases, citizens have waited for months, if not years, for their requests to be processed.
This lackadaisical approach by federal agencies to the law prevents citizens from obtaining information to which they are entitled. Most importantly, it erodes the people's faith and trust in an open and responsive government, which is essential in a democracy.
I recently introduced legislation with Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to address this problem.
Known as the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act or OPEN Government Act, the bill strengthens existing FOIA provisions and creates strong incentives for federal agencies to comply with the law.
It establishes procedures to ensure that FOIA requests to all government agencies are promptly and thoroughly handled. It implements a system that enables individuals to track their information requests and tightens up time limits for government agencies to respond. It also improves a citizen's ability to recover attorneys' fees and court costs when they are on the winning side of litigation to get information from the government.
In addition, the legislation takes strides to ensure that the law reflects modern times.
In the age of the Internet and supercomputers, information is globally transmitted at the click of a mouse button. This technology has transformed the way we communicate ideas and current events, and has given rise to new media outlets like Internet-based journalists and Internet bloggers. This legislation recognizes the place of these new media in today's culture, and grants the same benefits to them that traditional media outlets enjoy under the law.
The Freedom of Information Act functions as a vital check and balance on the federal branch. Modernizing and strengthening this important law ensures that government remains open and accountable to the people. Congress must not miss this opportunity to reinforce and protect the public's right to know what the government does in their name.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Courts, the Internet and Intellectual Property. He is also a member of the Committees on Homeland Security and Science.