As a U.S. citizen, you have the right to see and review any government record that is not classified for national security reasons. All you have to do is file a Freedom of Information Act request. The filing part of FOIA is easy—the rest is a big question mark.
When you file a FOIA request, you can literally watch the government’s wheels begin to grind to a stop.
While you may have a legal right to view a government document, the government—state or federal—can take its grand old time in responding. Delays in filling FOIA requests may be attributed to bureaucracy and politics—but you’ll never know. Such FOIA request responses can days or years. I personally learned of one FOIA request—and there are thousands like it—that has been waiting 15 years for a response. Something is very wrong in how our government—under law—treats a citizen’s request to seek the truth.
FOIA had bi-partisan support in the 1960s and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (D) finally signed it into law on July 4, 1966 (it was rewritten in 1974 to include the Privacy Act and then amended in 1996, 2002 and 2007). Today, I am not sure if it’s exactly the way the 1966 Congress had envisioned, it and I am not even sure why it has been tinkered with so often.
Now the so-called Faster FOIA proposal is ready for Congress to review, but legislators are just as slow as dealing with it as are the government’s responses to thousands of FOIA requests. Both political parties have been playing politics with the FOIA, but now the Faster FOIA may get a needed boost before the 2012 election.
The lawmakers behind the new Faster FOIA are Vermont U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) and Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R).
It’s rare when a liberal (Leahy) and a conservative (Cronyn) can agree on anything, let alone work together to craft legislation, but both senators agree that freedom means not only the pursuit of happiness, it also means the pursuit of truth.
According to Cronyn, “Citizens have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing and political operatives should not be interfering with legitimate requests by citizens and journalists under the Freedom of Information Act.”
When Congress reconvenes in a few weeks, the Leahy-Cronyn Faster FOIA will be reintroduced to the Congress. It’s hard to imagine the House’s Republican majority in rejecting the measure. Most Democrats appear on board.
According to a recent editorial in the Battle Creek (Mich.) Inquirer, “The bill seeks to create an advisory panel that would examine the reasons behind the backlog in FOIA requests and recommend to Congress how the process can be expedited. Whether the legislation will actually result in more timely replies to FOIA requests is unknown, but at least it will give lawmakers a little more leverage in pushing agencies to respond.”
In the case of FOIA to date, the price of freedom of information doesn’t come cheap—it costs Uncle Sam nearly $500 million every year to process FOIA requests. However, now is not the time to use budget-slashing as an excuse to abandon the democratic principles of FOIA.
Cronyn gives the best reason for assuring timely FOIA requests before the 2012 election: “I am deeply disturbed that Obama administration political operatives have filtered FOIA requests based on the political or professional affiliation of those requesting the transparency guaranteed to our citizens under federal law. And I commend the House panel for doing its job of oversight of the executive branch, and I hope they get to the bottom of these allegations.”
On a state level, Vermont is making some progress in providing access to information.
Now Vermont citizens can find out the names of vendors selling goods and services to state government and the amounts of their transactions.
The State of Vermont Transparency site—www.vttransparency.org—allows viewers to see over 121,000 vendor transactions. The cost to citizens to see the data: zero.