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A New Bill to Curb Congressional Secrecy

March 19, 2008 - by Donny Shaw

According to a recent poll, 74 percent of American adults view the government as secretive, up from 62 percent in 2006. A new bill in the Senate could help fix that reputation by
ensuring that when Congress decides to keep government information secret, the public knows why.

Pat Leahy (D-VT) and John Conrnyn’s (R-TX) Open FOIA Act was introduced in the Senate just in time for Sunshine Week, an annual, nation-wide initiative “to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.”

The bill proposes a change to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the monumental law that allows citizens, journalists (bloggers now included), academics and anyone else access to previously unreleased government documents. FOIA allows Congress to exempt any information from disclosure by simply stating so in the text of a bill. The new Leahy-Cornyn bill seeks to curb abuse of this congressional power by requiring that their reasoning behind an exemption be clearly and explicitly explained.

Senator Leahy’s statement upon introducing the bill is eloquent and worth reading in full. Here are the three key paragraphs:

>The FOIA exemption commonly known as the “(b)(3) exemption,” requires that Government records that are specifically exempted from FOIA by statute may be withheld from the public. Of course, neither I nor Senator Cornyn would quibble with the notion that some Government information is appropriately kept from public view. But in recent years we have witnessed an alarming number of FOIA (b)(3) exemptions being offered in legislation—often in very ambiguous terms—to the detriment of the
American people’s right to know.
>
>
>The bedrock principles of open government lead me to believe that
(b)(3) statutory exemptions should be clear and unambiguous, and
vigorously debated before they are enacted into law. Of course,
sometimes this does happen. But more and more often, legislative
exemptions to FOIA are buried within a few lines of very complex and
lengthy bills, which are never debated openly and publicly before
becoming law. The consequence of this troubling practice is the erosion
of the public’s right to know and the shirking of Congress’ duty to
fully consider these exemptions.
>
>
>Senator Cornyn and I both believe that Congress must be diligent in
reviewing any new exemptions to FOIA, to prevent possible abuses and a
situation where the exceptions to disclosure under FOIA swallow this
important disclosure rule. The OPEN FOIA Act will ensure openness and
clarity about how we treat one of our most important open Government
laws. Our bill will also shine more light into the process of creating
legislative exemptions to FOIA—which is the best antidote to exemption
creep.

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