Some buzz for reform

This is getting some buzz, but it deserves a lot more.

Congress has sent to the president a bill this week that substantially reforms the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act process by calling the game on some common stonewalling tactics and opening it to more free access from non-traditional journalists, bloggers and other thorns in officialdom’s side.

The bill is called the Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act and thankfully goes by the acronym laced, OPEN Government Act. Passage was a bipartisan effort in Congress.

President Bush has some quibbles with the bill, but the White House has not indicated that a veto is likely. Hopefully, it will become the law of the land.

Supporters hailed the passage:

“This is the most significant victory for transparency in the federal government in more than a decade,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said. “There is still much work to be done, but this is a major step toward a more open and accountable democracy.”

“This is a huge advancement for open government, thanks to the leadership of Senators Leahy, Cornyn and Kyl and Representatives Waxman and Platts,” says RTNDA president Barbara Cochran. “But this isn’t just a victory for journalists; it’s a victory for every single member of the American public. This legislation will eliminate some of the lengthy delays and persistent backlogs in the FOIA process that create obstacles and limit the public’s ability to make informed choices in their communities.”

“Passage of the FOIA bill will allow not only members of the press but all Americans to hold their government more accountable. In a time when First Amendment rights are under attack almost daily in this country, this bill is a major step to ensuring America has a free press and a government that is transparent and open,” noted Clint Brewer, president of the Society of Professional Journalists and Executive Editor of the City Paper in Nashville, Tennessee.

Most of the regulars who hold this issue among their near and dear weighed in. One lobbying group behind the bill, The Sunshine in Government Initiative, included the major news media trade and professional groups: American Society of Newspaper Editors, Associated Press, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, 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.

But it was more than the mainstream media that was pushing for the bill.

David Ardia of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard notes that the act importantly expands the definition of who is a representative of the news media, allowing bloggers and other non-traditional journalists to be eligible for reduce processing and duplication fees.

Nate Anderson writing in the influential blog ars technica says:

The OPEN Government Act sets up what seems to be quite a reasonable standard for making these decisions: prior publication history. Writers need have no official affiliation; if they have a history of publishing pieces, on the Internet or elsewhere, they should be considered for a fee waiver. Even those without such a publication history may be eligible for a waiver if they offer a compelling explanation of how they will distribute the material in question to a broad audience.

The law reforms the current FOIA law, Ardia writes, by:

  • Broadening the scope of information that can be requested by including government contracting information held by private contractors;
  • Assigning public tracking numbers to all requests;
  • Denying agencies that exceed the 20-day deadline for responses the right to charge requesters for search or copying costs;
  • Making it easier to collect attorneys’ fees for those who must sue to force compliance with their FOIA requests; and
  • Establishing an office at the National Archives to accept citizen complaints, issue opinions on requests, and foster best practices within the government.  

The battle for open government is one of those continual struggles in which meaningful procedures changes and new definitions in the labyrinth of government rules and regulations are a major victory.

But as Steven Aftergood of the blog Secrecy News notes:

For all of its procedural virtues, the OPEN Government Act does not touch the root of government secrecy, namely the decision to withhold information. The Act does not repeal or modify any of the more than one hundred statutory exemptions from disclosure under the FOIA. And it does not address the proper scope or application of the classification system. That is a task for another day.

Full text of the act.