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Returning government to the people

Published March 18, 2007


For six years the Bush administration has operated within a culture of secrecy. It has put huge swaths of public records out of reach by classifying too many documents, sealing presidential and vice presidential records and encouraging federal agencies to deny records requests under the Freedom of Information Act. On Wednesday, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House said "enough." It passed four important measures by large bipartisan majorities that push back against this closed door of government.

The House is doing its part to move a "Sunshine Week" agenda - the week of March 11-17 was designated by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for the promotion of open government. Now the Senate needs to follow suit. If the president refuses to go along, as he has suggested for at least two of the four measures, then his veto should be overridden.

Bush seems to have forgotten that the work product of government belongs to the people. The records generated by him and the agencies of his administration are ours. Having access to them is our only reasonable means of keeping government accountable.

Bush is most hostile to a bill that would rescind an executive order he issued in 2001 giving presidents, vice presidents and their designees substantial authority to put the records of their administrations off limits indefinitely. The new bill would restore the prior rules, opening most presidential records to the public 12 years after the president's leaving office.

Another vital reform would require federal officials to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests by establishing a presumption of disclosure. People with an outstanding request would also be able to track the status of their submission.

The thrust of this bill is to overturn the Bush administration's position that records should be withheld if there is any legitimate reason to do so.

Another measure would require presidential libraries to disclose donors who give $200 or more. The final piece of legislation would grant new protections to federal whistle-blowers, particularly government scientists whose politically appointed superiors try to subvert their findings.

These are all needed reforms, but Bush is threatening to veto the measure that grants access to presidential records and the one that would protect whistle-blowers. In addition, the White House raised objections to the other two, saying in a statement that it strongly opposed the FOIA bill.

It is no surprise that this administration is objecting to bringing more transparency to government. From Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force meetings to the current hearings of high-value detainees at Guantanamo, it has operated in an environment of extreme secrecy, reminiscent of the Nixon era.

With secrecy comes control and opportunities to hide misdeeds and embarrassing mistakes. The prior Republican-led Congress allowed Bush and Cheney to get away with this for far too long. Now, with a Democratic majority and a growing number of Republican lawmakers willing to defy an unpopular president, government in the sunshine has a fighting chance in Washington.


[Last modified March 18, 2007, 10:01:34]

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