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EDITORIAL: Biden drags his feet on government transparency

President Joe Biden has many raging fires to contain, including COVID, Ukraine, inflation, immigration and crime. Yet more than a year into his first term it’s disappointing that the White House hasn’t found the time at all to clarify its commitment to transparency and open government.

In recent decades, it has become the norm for incoming presidents to issue a statement outlining their “goals for strengthening transparency” and improving the administration of the Freedom of Information Act, Ryan Mulvey, policy counsel for the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, told Reason. But so far, “The government transparency community hasn’t seen anything yet from President Biden.”

Last week, a group of more than two dozen nonprofits dedicated to government accountability sent a letter to the administration expressing concern about its inaction on this vital matter.

“Our hope was that the DOJ would address the government’s troubling tendency toward less disclosure,” the note said, “and the increasing challenges requesters are facing during the FOIA process.” The group noted that, if the number of active FOIA cases is an indication, “agency noncompliance with the FOIA … is at a decade-long high even while requesters are waiting longer than ever to initiate litigation.”

Open government is the hallmark of a free and democratic society. The Freedom of Information Act serves as a vehicle for taxpayers, researchers, media and watchdog groups to shine a bright light on the actions of those who work on our behalf. Too often, however, they are stymied by bureaucrats and agencies that prefer the shadows to the spotlight. FOIA requests can take years, with little incentive for the government to respond in an expedient manner.

“Long delays and high rates of withholding make getting information into the hands of the public difficult,” Anna Diakun of the Knight First Amendment Institute wrote for CNN, “especially if the requester is unwilling to engage in years-long litigation.”

There are reforms, however, that could strengthen the law and make it easier to hold government officials accountable for noncompliance. So far, however, the Biden administration has been silent on this vital matter. That’s not good enough. The president must lead from above and make it clear to the executive branch agencies he oversees that he understands the value of transparency and won’t tolerate efforts to keep public information from the taxpayers.

Ms. Diakun notes that, in her first day on the job, White House press secretary Jen Psaki pledged the administration would “bring transparency and truth back to government.” Mr. Biden must make it a priority in his second year to ensure that such vows are more than just empty rhetoric.

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