Outside editorial: Open government

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2007

There lies upon the president's desk a bill that would make a government of, by and for the people more responsive to the people who request information from it. Rather than make an affirmative statement of support for open government, President Bush seems content to let the legislation become law Monday without his signature. We urge him to reconsider.

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Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration has had an expanding soft spot for secrecy. Citing national security a month after the attacks, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft directed federal agencies to clamp down on the amount and types of information they released. The Open Government Act of 2007, originally sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, would change that and give the sneered-at and too-easily-stymied Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) the teeth it needs.

The FOIA requests would have to be responded to within 20 days. Those that might take longer than 10 days to process would be assigned a tracking number, which would be given to the requester. That person would then be able to keep tabs on the request by telephone or on the Internet. To ensure accountability, each agency would have to monitor the number of requests it received and how long it took to respond to them. The statistics collected would be available to the public on the Web. If the agency took longer than 20 days to answer a request, it would not be able to charge search fees.

Each agency would have an FOIA public liaison tasked with "reducing delays, increasing transparency ... and assisting in the resolution of disputes." This person would report to the agency's designated chief FOIA officer. Finally, the legislation would create the Office of Government Information Services within the National Archives to review agency FOIA policies and recommend improvements to the president and Congress.

Bush's spokespeople demurred when asked this month whether the president would sign the bill. We had no luck getting an answer, either. Because Congress is technically still in session, the bill will become law automatically if it is not signed by the president within 10 days. Still, that Bush won't sign it is a shame. Normally, this would be a win-win situation. But his apparent unwillingness to embrace openness taints this particular win.



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