WASHINGTON – The House Wednesday passed three bills to open government records to the public, brushing aside White House opposition, and in one case, a veto threat.
The measures, highlighting the media-led Sunshine Week, would force government to be more responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests, make contributions to presidential libraries public and overturn a 2001 presidential directive giving the president authority to keep his records from public view.
The White House issued a veto threat on the presidential records bill and voiced opposition to the FOIA legislation. It also said the president would veto a fourth bill the House is to debate later Wednesday on whistleblower protections. Democrats say the bills, several of which were also taken up in past Republican-led Congresses, were needed to shine light on what they say has been one of the most secretive administrations in decades.
The White House said it was against the FOIA bill because it was "premature and counterproductive" to legislate new requirements on federal agencies before they have a chance to implement changes the president previously outlined.
The votes were 390-34 on the presidential library bill, 333-93 on the presidential records bill and 308-117 on the FOIA legislation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile held a hearing on a parallel FOIA bill, introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, to improve administration of the law and provide penalties for agencies that fail to comply in a timely fashion.
Media representatives said seven agencies have gone more than a decade without responding to some requests for information under the act. They endorsed the bill's noncompliance penalties, its provisions to allow people to track the progress of their requests and its provisions to recompense requesters for attorneys fees when they successfully sue for records that were denied.
Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press and a member of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a media coalition, said that AP's legal battles to obtain information about terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had cost "well into six figures," but the Pentagon proposed to reimburse only $11,000. Under current law, "we'll have to sue again to get a higher, fairer number," he said.
The House bill goes a step further than the Senate version in restoring a "presumption of disclosure" standard that obliges agencies to release requested information unless there is a finding that such a disclosure could do harm.
That would overturn a memo issued by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks advising against the release of information when there was uncertainty over security or law enforcement exemptions.
The White House, in its statement, said it "strongly opposes" the House provision, arguing it would upset the balance between the public's right to know and the need to safeguard certain information.
The 40-year-old FOIA law was a promise that people could find out what their government was doing "in all but a few kinds of highly sensitive or confidential matters," Curley said in his statement. "The law does back them. But in many cases the government doesn't back the law."
Democrats claimed that situation has worsened under the Bush administration.
"For the past six years, we have had an administration that has tried to operate in secrecy, without transparency, without the public having knowledge about their action," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "Well, this week, Congress is finally pushing back."
The presidential records measure would rescind a Bush executive order in 2001 giving current and former presidents and vice presidents authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely.
The library bill requires disclosure of contributions to presidential libraries, an issue as preparations begin for the Bush library to be located in Texas.
The administration, in a statement, said Bush would be advised to veto the presidential records bill because it would "invite unnecessary litigation, is misguided and would improperly impinge on the president's constitutional authority."
The act passed after Watergate "to underscore the fact that presidential records belong to the American people, not to the president," said Waxman. The presidential directive, he said, "undermines the entire purpose" of the act.
Sunshine Week, March 11-17, is a three-year-old national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is intended to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others.
The Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday took up another open-government issue, a bill that would force Senate campaign finance reports to be filed electronically rather than in paper format. House and presidential candidates file electronically, and "there is no excuse for keeping our own campaign finance information inaccessible to the public," said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.