Informed Citizens Are the Foundation of a Strong Democracy
By: Congressman Lamar Smith
America's Founding Fathers, fleeing an oppressive King, sought to create a democracy that would be responsive to its citizens. To ensure a responsive government, they gave citizens the power to vote their leaders in and out of office.
Thomas Jefferson understood that the key to sustaining this type of government is an informed public. Jefferson once said, "Educate and inform the whole mass of the people... They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty." In other words, when the public knows what's going on they can make informed decisions about who should govern.
Every American citizen should be able to quickly and easily obtain public information from the federal government. The health of our democracy depends on it. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.
The process by which a person obtains government records under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is overly burdensome. Clogged with requests, federal agencies have become less and less responsive. Contact information the public uses to request documents and records is sometimes inaccurate. Agencies have misplaced or altogether lost information requests. In many cases, citizens have waited for months, if not years, for their requests to be processed. A process that deters citizens from seeking information to which they are entitled erodes the people's faith and trust in government.
March 8 through March 12 is National Sunshine Week - a week designed to help draw attention to the importance of open government. Disclosure is a key component of open government and something we must improve upon.
Last December, President Bush signed an Executive Order aimed at improving Federal agencies' disclosure of requested information. The Order promoted agency accountability by requiring that within each agency, an Assistant Secretary be designated as the Chief FOIA Officer. They will oversee FOIA implementation within the agency and review the agency's FOIA process. The plan must be implemented over a two year time period and must include a process to eliminate the agency's FOIA request backlog.
The Order also requires the establishment of at least one FOIA Request Service Center within each agency. The Service Center will have a service oriented approach to taking requests. One of its main responsibilities will be to track the status of FOIA requests. A public liaison officer will be appointed within each agency so that the FOIA requestor can talk to that person if they do not get satisfaction from the initial service center call.
The President's Executive Order is a good first step, but it falls short of the reforms that are necessary to fix the enormous problems caused by years of neglect of FOIA requests. There is a lot more that we can do to ensure that the public is able to get the information it needs to make informed decisions.
Last year, I introduced the "Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act of 2005" or "OPEN Government Act" in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation would give the public more access to information and more insight into the workings of government by strengthening FOIA. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) is the bill's sponsor in the Senate.
The OPEN Government Act includes provisions that would create a broader definition of "news media" so that all types of news media, including smaller, non-traditional outlets, can obtain government documents at minimal cost. It would allow more individuals to recover attorneys' fees when they are on the winning side of litigation to get information from the government, tighten up time limits for government agencies to respond to FOIA requests, and require individual tracking numbers for each FOIA request.
FOIA performs a vital check on the federal branch. It protects our open system of government and ensures that the government responds to the American people.
For information on how to access information through FOIA, log onto the Department of Justice ("DOJ") Office of Information Website at, http://www.usdoj.gov/oip/oip.html. The DOJ also keeps a list of FOIA Websites for each federal agency. That list can be obtained be logging onto http://www.usdoj.gov/04foia/other_age.htm.
I encourage you to take advantage of some existing tools that enable citizens to access government information. You can check congressional voting records by logging onto http://thomas.loc.gov/.
I also encourage you to contact or visit my staff should you have any difficulties with a federal agency. My district offices, located in both Austin and San Antonio, are always ready to assist you.
Citizens should have the opportunity to obtain information quickly and easily. The foundation of our Democracy depends on it.