Democrats Want to Strengthen Open Government Laws

Congressional Democrats are looking at ways to strengthen open government laws and force the Bush administration to release more documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo., said legislation he is considering would be broader than an open government bill last year which sought to reduce the number of disputed FOIA requests and improve reporting requirements to Congress. The legislation never reached a vote in the House or Senate

Clay said the old bill will be the starting point for a new one that will take direct aim at the administration's practice of using the threat of terrorism to withhold "nonsensitive information."

"I am deeply concerned that this administration appears to be shielding information that ought to be accessible to the public," said Clay, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's subcommittee on information policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union urged the subcommittee on Wednesday to scrap what it said was the White House's "policy of nondisclosure" outlined in a 2001 memo by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Ashcroft advised against releasing information when there was uncertainty about whether FOIA exemptions applied, such as for national security and law enforcement material. His memo reversed a Clinton administration policy that urged agencies to resolve FOIA requests by erring on the side of releasing, not withholding, government information.

"To this administration, secrecy is the default response," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero told the panel at a hearing on the FOIA law.

Another witness, Clark Hoyt of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, urged Congress to create an independent ombudsman within the federal government to improve training and compliance with the FOIA and act as a liaison for people frustrated in their efforts to use the law to obtain records.

President Bush signed an executive order in 2005 directing federal agencies to be more efficient in dealing with requests for government information, but he left the Ashcroft memo in place. The order called on agencies to take several consumer-friendly steps, including streamlining the handling of requests under the FOIA and appointing senior officials to monitor compliance with the law.

Linda Koontz, director of information management for the Government Accountability Office, said it is too soon to tell if the flow of disclosure has improved under the new executive order. But her agency's study of FOIA request processing trends from 2002 to 2005 found that many agencies could not keep pace with the increase in requests they received.

Melanie Ann Pustay, acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy, pointed out that agencies face stiff challenges in fulfilling many FOIA requests because of the sheer volume and irregularity of documents that must be reviewed.

She also said that the Internet, among other sources, has caused FOIA requests to balloon to "millions" every year and that processing them costs more than $300 million annually.