December 27, 2000

December 27, 2000 | Commentary on

Reviving the Right to Know

Whatever else may be said about the Clinton era, the past eight years have not been kind to those who believe the public's business should be conducted in public. Restoring an appreciation in the nation's capital for the people's right to know should be a top priority for the Bush administration.

And there's much room for improvement, starting with President Clinton's 1993 refusal to hold public meetings of his National Health Care Task Force and continuing thereafter in a Kafkaesque series of delays, denials, snubs and outright violations of federal court orders, congressional subpoenas and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The pattern began early. Hundreds of examples were described in a 1997 report on Clinton's first term from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a journalism watchdog group. They range from making The Washington Post wait two years for documents concerning Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot's expenses on a foreign trip to repeatedly denying FOIA requests for information on the White House's $25 million telephone system.

That little changed during President Clinton's second term is seen in the Oct. 13, 2000, denial of a FOIA request for the names of all presidential guests at Camp David because, an administration official argued, making the list public "would not significantly contribute to the public understanding of the operations or activities of government."

No wonder former IRS historian Shelley Davis quit in 1995, claiming "our record-keeping policies do not ensure that information about our policies, actions, procedures and plans will be ever be available to the American people."

Step one in the clean up is for President-elect Bush to tell all of his executive branch appointees that the letter and spirit of the FOIA will be followed. He should also declare that there is no place in the new administration for such mystifying FOIA actions as the Justice Department's still-unexplained decision earlier this year to stop providing records describing cases handled by federal prosecutors.

Incredibly, Justice officials have admitted the records should be released under the FOIA. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which routinely obtains such records from the government for use by journalists, has appealed the strange denial to a federal court.

Vital as the FOIA is, the Internet presents new opportunities to advance the public's right to know. So step two is applying this principle throughout government: Absent a compelling reason to the contrary, such as strictly defined national security considerations, individual privacy rights or law enforcement interests, all documents paid for with tax dollars should promptly be made public via the Internet.

Federal departments and agencies signed more than 10,000 contracts last year worth nearly $200 billion, according to the Federal Procurement Data System. With those contracts, the government bought everything from good and bad advice to office furniture, paper clips and the zirconium used in nuclear reactors. Uncle Sam's chief Internet web portal, FirstGov.gov, provides general information about these contracts but no texts or supporting documentation from the contractors.

Why not post on the Internet the complete text and supporting documentation of all federal contracts, grant awards, memorandums of understanding and other legally binding agreements, subject only to the same exceptions that apply to the FOIA? Such transparency throughout the $1.8 trillion federal behemoth could go far in restoring public confidence in government.

Finally, there is the proposed Statistical Efficiency Act (SEA), an obscure piece of legislation intended to establish new rules governing the use of federal research data. The legislation was approved only by the House, and likely will be reintroduced in the new Congress.

The issue here is whether federal agencies should be able to exchange data they've collected on individual Americans' income, spending habits, tax returns, education, health, housing, children and hundreds of other factors without making that same data available to journalists, think tanks, academics and other independent analysts.

The problem is the near-impossibility of holding government accountable when independent analysts are denied access to the same data used by policymakers. The proposed legislation failed this year when critics said it was so vaguely worded that it could lock government data behind closed doors.

The cause of open government could get a real boost from the proposed legislation if it is revised to require agencies to use statistical "masks" to protect individuals' identities while guaranteeing independent analysts equal access to government data.

These three steps could be a good start on converting "trust the people" from a mere campaign slogan to a new transparency and accountability in government.

Mark Tapscott is manager of media programs for The Heritage Foundation's Center for Media and Public Policy.

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Distributed nationally by Knight-Ridder Tribune News Wire (12/27/00)