03.20.08

Leahy Presses Open Government Agenda As Nation Celebrates Sunshine Week

Judiciary Committee Chairman Continues Push For Government Transparency, Federal Media Shield Law

WASHINGTON (Thursday, March 20, 2008) – Two issues at the center of the public’s right-to-know agenda in Congress are in the spotlight as the nation observes the fourth annual “Sunshine Week.”  Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) marked an initial victory against White House efforts to weaken a newly enacted law to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and he continued his push for Senate passage of a federal media shield law.

While the Senate last week considered a budget proposal that rejected the administration’s attempts to move the newly established Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to the Department of Justice, Leahy was working behind the scenes to try to secure Senate passage of the Free Flow of Information Act, long-pending legislation to establish a federal qualified shield law for journalists and reporters. 

Also in advance of Sunshine Week -- a national observance spotlighting the importance of open government and freedom of information -- Leahy and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced legislation to pull back the curtains on FOIA exemptions written into legislation passed by Congress.

“As the nation commemorates the fourth annual Sunshine Week, it’s important to take stock of the successes we have had this year in reforming the Freedom of Information Act,” said Leahy.  “But we also must take a closer look at what needs to be done to bring greater transparency to our government.  Enacting a media shield law to protect the free flow of information has gained new urgency.  Reforming FOIA to fulfill the right of the American people to know what their government is doing is also important.  The Congress should act before the end of this session to address these issues.”

Media Shield

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to report the Free Flow of Information Act in October, and Leahy since then has been urging the Senate to take action on the bill.  At Leahy’s request, similar legislation passed by the House of Representatives was placed directly on the Senate calendar, bypassing the need for further committee consideration.  Before the two-week recess, Leahy worked to try to clear the media shield law for passage.

“I was pleased that the Free Flow of Information Act was cleared for Senate passage on the Democratic side before the Easter recess,” said Leahy.  “Unfortunately the bill remains stalled in the Senate due to the objections of a few Republican Senators.  The legislation the Judiciary Committee passed last year carefully balances the need to protect confidential source information with the need to protect law enforcement and national security interests.  Forty-nine states and theDistrict of Columbia currently have reporters’ shield laws on the books.  The federal government still lags behind.”

Earlier this month, Leahy and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) urged the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders to schedule floor consideration of the legislation.  The Free Flow of Information Act has the support of dozens of media organizations including the Vermont Press Association, the New England Press Association, the Associated Press, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The New York Times Company, and The Washington Post.  Recently, the Media Coalition Supporting the Free Flow of Information Act recently wrote to Leahy urging Senate passage of the bill.

FOIA

Leahy and Cornyn last week partnered to introduce the OPEN FOIA Act which would require Congress to explicitly and clearly state its intention to provide for statutory exemptions to FOIA in new legislative proposals.  Similar legislation unanimously passed the Senate in the last Congress.  The new FOIA legislation follows the passage of the Leahy-Cornyn OPEN Government Act, which the President signed into law in December, adding the first reforms to FOIA in more than a decade.  The law restores meaningful deadlines for agency action under FOIA and imposes real consequences on federal agencies for missing FOIA’s 20-day statutory deadline.

The OPEN Government Act also established the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  The president’sFY2009 budget request, released to Congress on February 4, 2008, indicated the administration’s intent to shift the responsibilities of OGIS from the independent NARA to the Department of Justice.  Leahy and Cornyn (Senator Cornyn is a member of the Senate Budget Committee) worked to beat back the administration’s efforts.  The Senate-approved budget resolution would reject the President’s proposal and assumes that OGIS will be established at NARA as intended by Congress.

“The Senate last week rejected the President’s proposal to undermine the intent of Congress and shift the duties of the FOIA ombudsman,” said Leahy.  “The Senate has shown once again that it supports strengthening FOIA, and I hope it will act swiftly to pass the OPEN FOIA Act to keep improvements to the public’s right to know on the march, even as this era of government secrecy continues.” 

Leahy and Cornyn are longtime leaders in the Senate on open government issues and recentlypenned an op-ed to celebrate Sunshine Week.  News organizations, schools, nonprofit groups and others have celebrated Sunshine Week since 2005, and this year’s commemoration is from March 16 to March 22. 

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