01.26.09

FOIA, Disclosure Policies Get Boost Early In New Year

WASHINGTON (Monday, Jan. 26) – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) Monday praised two key breakthroughs this past week to strengthen the public’s right to know and promote openness in government and government-funded projects.

On Monday, the Board of Regents for the Smithsonian Institution, of which Leahy is a member, adopted a public disclosure policy for information requests.  Because the Smithsonian is not an executive agency, it is not subject to the disclosure policies in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  However, the policy adopted Monday by the Board of Regents mirrors several FOIA policies and includes a presumption of disclosure.

“The Smithsonian Institution is a national treasure, and all Americans should expect of it the same openness and transparency that we expect of our executive agencies,” said Leahy.  “The proposal adopted today reflects a continuing dialogue between the Smithsonian, members of the FOIA community, and interested members of Congress.  It is an important first step in ensuring more openness and accountability, consistent with the time-honored principles of FOIA.  I look forward to continued work with the Smithsonian to bring more transparency to this cherished institution.”

Leahy has been a longtime advocate for transparency in government and a leader in Congress on strengthening and invigorating the Freedom of Information Act.  He authored legislation in 2007 that made the first changes to FOIA in more than a decade.  The OPEN Government Act was signed into law on December 31, 2007. 

Leahy last week praised a memorandum signed on January 21 by President Obama, which established a new FOIA policy for executive departments and agencies.  The memorandum stated that “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”

In a statement last Thursday, Leahy praised President Obama’s commitment to open government.

“The President is turning the page and moving away from the overreaching secrecy of the last administration.  I commend President Obama for recognizing that our government is accountable to the people it represents.  I also commend the President for taking immediate steps during his first full days in office to send this important message to the American people.”

Leahy is expected to introduce legislation in the 111th Congress to strengthen existing FOIA laws.  He also expects to work with appropriators to provide the necessary funding to establish the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives, which was mandated in the OPEN Government Act.

# # # # #

Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On President Obama’s New Memorandum On The Freedom Of Information Act 
January 22, 2009

MR. PRESIDENT.  From the start of his transition to the White House, I have urge President Obama to make a clear commitment to open government.  By issuing his directive to strengthen one of our Nation’s most important open government laws, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the President is turning the page and moving away from the overreaching secrecy of the last administration.  I commend President Obama for recognizing that our government is accountable to the people it represents.  I also commend the President for taking immediate steps during his first full days in office to send this important message to the American people.

I was delighted with the answer of the President’s nominee to be the next Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, when I asked him at his confirmation hearing last week about how he intended to implement the Freedom of Information Act.  He, too, believes that the presumption should be toward disclosure and openness.  In fact, that was the policy before Attorney General Ashcroft reversed it.

Today, our Government is more open and accountable to the American people than it was just a few weeks ago.   With the President’s new FOIA memorandum, the implementation of the first major reforms to FOIA in more than a decade in the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act, and the nomination of Eric H. Holder Jr., to be the Attorney General of the United States, the American people have more openness and accountability regarding the activities of the executive branch.  I am pleased that the President also issued a Presidential Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government that will promote accountability and transparency in government, and an Executive Order on Presidential Records that will provide the American people with greater access to presidential records.  

The right to know is a cornerstone of our democracy.  Without it, citizens are kept in the dark about key policy decisions that directly affect their lives.  Without open government, citizens cannot make informed choices at the ballot box.  Without access to public documents and a vibrant free press, officials can make decisions in the shadows, often in collusion with special interests, escaping accountability for their actions.  And once eroded, these rights are hard to win back.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative has been vigilant and steadfast on behalf of open government.  I have been pleased to work with this coalition of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, National Association of Broadcasters, National Newspaper Association, Newspaper Association of America, Radio-Television News Directors Association, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and Society of Professional Journalists in connection with these initiative and correcting the government’s presumption toward openness.

As we celebrate the inauguration of our new President and the start of a new administration, we are reminded that a free, open and accountable democracy is what our forefathers envisioned and fought to create.  I believe that it is the duty of each new generation to protect this vital heritage and inheritance.   In this New Year, at this new and historic time for our Nation, I am pleased that we have once again reaffirmed a commitment to an open and transparent government on behalf of all Americans.

# # # # #

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693