The paradox that politicians and department heads have with FOIA.
For those unaware, a few weeks ago was Sunshine Week. It’s a week where government watchdogs push for more transparency in government. It’s also the week in which many raving derelicts hope to have their proposals gain major traction.
Granted while Sunshine Week is traditionally used more as advocacy for more transparent governmental systems, surprisingly Congress introduced two bills on the docket that would expand transparency in government. This is definitely a welcomed change from their usual reaction to the phrase “transparent government.”
The two bills currently being passed around in both the House and Senate are bipartisan legislation that focuses on expanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to give the public more access to federal records (ie easier access to old government deliberations). It would also expand the Office of Government Information Services’ authority, in which it would create a government consolidated portal for FOIA online requests. In other words, it would make FOIA oversight more independent. Potentially these changes would be huge for journalists and watchdog groups.
So with bipartisan support and not one, but TWO similar FOIA bills going around in Congress, FOIA expansion looks to be all but official.
Well, not so fast. This is Congress. Even when there is a bed nowhere in the vicinity, they will always find new and innovative ways to shit in it everytime. In many ways, they’re like the Steve Jobs of bed shitting.
Last year there were actually two FOIA bills introduced in Congress, but both got tabled because neither chamber agreed to vote on the other’s before session ended. It’s very strange because similar to the two FOIA bills introduced this year, both of them had bipartisan support and were identical to each other.
What gives Congress? FOIA expansion isn’t some unattainable/beautiful idea in that passing legislation would be like caging a beautiful bird or anything! You guys aren’t Red from The Shawshank Redemption, monologuing that “some birds aren’t meant to be caged; their feathers are just too bright.” If you guys are anyone from The Shawshank Redemption, it’s Brooks. You’re old, white men that have been sufficiently institutionalized by a broken system unable to survive outside its walls!
So while Congress keeps setting new standards for uselessness, at least there is one administration that cares about a transparent government. The Obama administration back in 2009 wanted to establish a “presumption of openness” when obtaining government documents. President Obama even went as far as issuing a White House directive to all government agencies to uphold the standards that FOIA represents. My guess is they must have done something big for Sunshine Week!
Ok not gonna lie to you here, wasn’t the “something big” that I had in mind.
Much like dumping your girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, the White House tried to quietly erase a government transparency rule that allowed the public to access documents with limited restrictions. While to be fair, the Obama administration did specify that the rule had been outdated due to a court ruling six years ago, so all they were doing was just cleaning up language on current regulations. Still to do it on Sunshine Week, well… that’s pretty fucked up!
The rule change actually came from the George W. Bush administration when it first mounted the legal challenge to keep some White House documents exempt. However the Obama administration still follows that practice saying the Office of Administration is not subject under FOIA.
For those that don’t know, the Office of Administration is tasked with overseeing the Office of the President. Basically any administrative task whether it’s getting information on particular subjects to graphics support, the White House will ask the Office of Administration for assistance. Getting a peek inside departments like these is the reason why FOIA exists in the first place. The best thing FOIA can do is show how certain administrations or departments make decisions on critical issues. By locking up the Office of Administration to FOIA access, you’re essentially nullifying the most important aspect of FOIA.
That’s like going to the Panda Express and not having the option of getting the Orange Chicken. First of all understand you’ve already made the questionable life decision by going to a Panda Express in the first place! Add to that, without the Orange Chicken you might as well be eating at an Arby’s because if you’re going to hate yourself that much, might as well turn it up to 11!
But it isn’t just that, the Obama administration has gotten worse about FOIA requests the longer President Obama has been in office. In an Associated Press (AP) analysis based on federal data, they found that the Obama administration took longer to turn over files and couldn’t find or refused to hand over documents when FOIA requests were filled. The AP went on to acknowledge that nearly 1/3 of the time, the initial decision by the Obama Administration was to censor or withhold records even though it was improper under law! Even worse, the watchdog group the Center for Effective Government gave failing grades to 10 out of the 15 government agencies in terms of FOIA requests!
For an administration that has trumpeted the importance of government transparency, it sure hasn’t done that great of a job practicing what it preaches. It’s one thing to tell someone they have a drinking problem. It’s entirely another to tell someone they have a drinking problem while you’re shot-gunning a six pack of Lime-A-Ritas!
I think right there is the problem. In theory I have no doubt politicians and department heads want to expand FOIA to the fullest. Because FOIA is essential for a thriving and healthy democracy. However the problem lies in that government officials feel THEIR information is the most sensitive, while others should be open to public scrutiny.
It’s like what George Carlin once said so many years ago about “stuff”.
Yup, it’s kinda like that.
(Photo Credits: Google Images, YouTube, The Washington Post, Arby’s)