By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director
Regular readers of this column know that we’ve found it necessary to write far too often about the lack of openness in the Obama administration. This, of course, after one of the president’s original campaign promises to create “the most transparent administration in history.”
Now, on the eve of Sunshine Week and an appeal to the U.S. Senate by RTDNA and a coalition of media groups in the Sunshine in Government Initiative to support FOIA reform, comes evidence the administration worked aggressively in 2014 to kill similar improvement measures. The irony is that it took an FOIA request to get the documents that prove it.
The story, as reported by Jason Leopold in Vice News, quotes documents that make it clear the administration and several government agencies worked behind the scenes to undermine FOIA reform despite the fact that it had bipartisan support. Reform bills made their way through both the House and the Senate, but were never called for a final vote.
An important part of the 2014 legislation would have been to make law President Obama’s executive memorandum signed on his first day in office in 2009 that mandated that all agencies “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government.”
Not surprisingly, it didn’t happen.
So now, as the FOIA approaches its 50th birthday, Congress has the opportunity to try again. In our letter to all U.S. Senators, we wrote, “Now is the time for Congress to enact improvements to FOIA that will enhance government transparency and accountability.” The House has already passed a similar bill.
S. 337 would not only write into law the presumption of openness, it would push agencies to modernize its technologies by creating a single FOIA portal for FOIA requests to any agency of government. It would also strengthen a government ombudsman’s ability to mediate disputes over records and improve overall FOIA practices.
A vote in the Senate may come as early as next week—which would coincide with the annual Sunshine Week commemoration which is designed to mark the need and the value of open government.
Now is the time for President Obama to finally make good on his campaign promise of seven years ago and to get behind these latest efforts to make our government more accountable and transparent to its citizens. In the final year of a presidency, there is always much concern over the legacy that a chief executive leaves. We sincerely hope a more open government is part of that legacy.