In one of his first executive orders, on Jan. 21, President Barack Obama issued new staff guidelines for responding to Freedom of Information Act requests from journalists and others.
Journalists frequently complained that, under the Bush administration, the default setting for responding to such requests seemed to be “delay as long as possible, and then err on the side of over-classifying or refusing, entirely.”
FOIA requests and appeals could take months, even years, to draw a response.
President Obama issued two presidential memos — one on “Transparency and Open Government” and another specifically on the Freedom of Information Act — instructing federal agencies to operate under principles of openness and transparency.
Broadcasters, newspapers and others — including the Sunshine in Government Initiative, an umbrella of media groups including the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Associated Press, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of Professional Journalists — were quick to heap praise on the new president for his pledge.
The guidelines were indeed an encouraging start.
No matter how sincere he may be, however, the new president may find that humming “let the sun shine in” is a lot easier than changing a bureaucratic culture in which it’s easy to get blamed for “letting something out” that causes embarrassment to one’s superiors, while hardly anyone has ever been called on the carpet for “erring on the side of caution.”
As urged by the Sunshine in Government Initiative (www.sunshineingovernment. org), the president could continue to set a good example by speaking on the record — and urging his senior deputies and aides to do the same — in all statements about policy matters.
An early test may come in the vast and pork-laden “stimulus package” now sliding down the congressional skids.
If the president means what he says — and we hope he does — he could start right now, making sure the public knows every allocation that’s in there, which member of Congress used his or her personal toothpicks to stick on that particular cherry or pineapple slice, and who specifically is going to end up with that particular piece of the taxpayers’ treasure.
In a massive and bipartisan show of hypocrisy, the Congress has long exempted itself from the disclosure requirements the FOIA imposes (at least theoretically) on executive branch agencies. Starting with an $800 billion-plus “stimulus” bill that (USA Today reports) is opposed as wasteful and unlikely to do much good by a majority of Americans, President Obama should seize this opportunity to demand Congress commit to complete FOIA-style openness on all the communications that indicate who asked for favors to be larded into this bill, who granted them, and what those representatives of the people were promised in return.
As Emory University journalism professor Don Campbell asked in a column in Wednesday’s USA Today, “Why can’t the White House provide a continuously updated computer spreadsheet that indicates where every dollar of the bailout is going?”
And why can’t the Congress step up and go public with all their e-mails and phone logs, letting us know precisely who’s getting “stimulated,” and by whom?