The OPEN Government Act: An Investment in American Democracy

Sunshine Week Commentary

 America seems to be at the dawn of a golden age of citizen-journalism, that great democratic tradition tracing its historical roots to our founding generation. As the Internet matures and evolves, thousands of activists, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs continue to be empowered to scrutinize the operations of government and report back to their fellow citizens. They often build on, borrow from, adapt or amplify the investigative work of traditional journalists, who are the backbone and basic muscle in enforcing the public's right to know.

The investigative reporting of fiscal hawks, campaign finance watchdogs, and consumer advocates has increased in both quality and quantity in recent years. American democracy can grow healthier as these 21st Century citizen-journalists (exemplified by the new generation of bloggers) contribute to the marketplace of ideas. And we believe that open and transparent government is a key component to helping usher in the goals of more efficient, more responsive, and – ultimately – cleaner government.

Congress can and must do more to keep the windows open and the sunshine pouring in. The President's 2006 executive order on implementing the Freedom of Information Act was a necessary first step. But the FOIA backlogs and other barriers to obtaining information remain, and this problem can and must be addressed by additional legislation.

Our bill, the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2007 ("OPEN Government Act"), would strengthen FOIA and close loopholes, by protecting access to FOIA fee waivers for legitimate journalists, regardless of institutional association – including bloggers and other Internet-based journalists.

The OPEN Government Act would also help FOIA requestors obtain more timely responses, by establishing FOIA hotline services, either by telephone or on the Internet, to enable requestors to track the status of their FOIA requests and creating a new FOIA ombudsman to review agency FOIA compliance and to provide alternatives to litigation.

Finally, our legislation would ensure that agencies have strong incentives to act on FOIA requests in a timely fashion, by restoring meaningful deadlines that require agency action on FOIA requests within 20 days of their receipt and imposing real consequences on federal agencies for missing statutory deadlines.

But legislation can only do so much without an administration's top-to-bottom commitment. Open government is an ethic. The citizen on the telephone asking about her 3-year-old FOIA request isn't a nuisance to be placed on hold; in fact, she's the boss.

Beyond our bill there is much more to be done, including striking the right balance when it comes to classified information. Of course, open government cannot mean putting access to information ahead of national security. But there are dangers to over-classification just as there are dangers to under-classification. We pledge to work together to help find that balance.

A democracy is always a work in progress. We believe that an open government is a prerequisite for a free society, and that accountability is only an empty promise without transparency. We intend our legislation to provide reporters, bloggers and other citizen-journalists with the tools they need to continue to improve the ongoing work of defending and refining American democracy.

Sen. Leahy is a Democratic senator from Vermont, Sen. Cornyn a Republican from Texas. For more about the introduction of S. 849, read Sen. Leahy's statement and Sen. Cornyn's remarks online. Photo courtesy of Sen. Leahy.