Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Breaking the information lock

INFORMATION is power, which is why presidential administrations of every political stripe over the years have attempted to keep the data harbored by federal agencies locked away from the prying eyes of the pesky public.

Under President Bush, official secrecy has been elevated to an art form. Citing post-9/11 terrorism concerns, the administration has ordered agencies under White House control to drag their feet as much as possible in responding to requests under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

But security worries make little sense when most of the requests for official information come not from journalists but from businesses and retirees and are directed to the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That's why it is refreshing to see a truly bipartisan movement in Congress to reverse this trend and force agencies to be more responsive to the public.

Sponsors of reform legislation include Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who has an appreciation of open-government from his days as Texas attorney general, and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, who sponsored a 1996 bill updating Internet access rules. Companion legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, who is chairman of the subcommittee on courts, the Internet, and intellectual property.

Their measures would require a speedier process for responding to FOIA requests, create an on-line tracking system, and penalize stonewalling by agencies.

The best process, of course, would require cooperation from an administration that understood that the people, not the government, own information gathered by federal agencies. But since no such animal seems to be breeding in Washington, the Cornyn-Leahy-Smith approach would be progress.

The fact is that both political parties have a vested interest in ensuring that government information is readily available, if nothing more than to satisfy traditional Democratic concerns about openness and Republican interests in rooting out waste, fraud, and abuse.

Information is the currency of democracy. Nobody should be denied it.

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