August 16, 2005

August 16, 2005 | Commentary on

The Right Move on Freedom of Information

David Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union, one of the oldest and largest advocacy groups on the Right. A Reagan campaign stalwart, he remains a keeper of the conservative faith as one of the movement's wise men.

Keene is also one of eight major leaders on the Right who are encouraging Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in his effort to reform the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by, among other things, giving it some real teeth.

Joining Keene in signing a recent letter to Cornyn were Amy Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research; Mike Krempasky, founder and director of RedState.org; Mark Levin, president of the Landmark Legal Foundation; Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center; John Berthoud, president of the National Taxpayers Union; Terence Scanlon, president of the Capital Research Center; and Alex Mooney, executive director of the National Journalism Center of Young America's Foundation.

"As the federal government becomes ever bigger, more expensive and more intrusive, it becomes more important than ever that Americans have greater access to routine official documents that show what is being done in their name in the nation's capitol, subject only to reasonable exceptions like national security, law enforcement, personal privacy, etc.," the conservative leaders told Cornyn.

"Your proposal can reinvigorate the Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 1966 over the objections of President Lyndon Johnson and which today is too often abused or ignored by government employees at all levels," they said.

Cornyn's proposal is "The Open Government Act of 2005," which he introduced, with co-sponsor Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in February. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, introduced the measure in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Open Government Act of 2005:

  • Establishes penalties for individual federal employees and agencies for violating the law.
  • Creates an ombudsman to mediate disputes between FOIA requestors and agencies.
  • Requires agencies to track progress on FOIA requests they receive with a system much like that used by FedEx and UPS to track packages.
  • Directs agencies to beef up their reports to Congress on FOIA compliance.
  • Re-establishes the right of successful FOIA litigants to have their legal fees refunded by agencies found to have violated the law.

The FOIA guarantees all citizens the right to see all government documents, subject only to exemptions for national security, law enforcement, privileged commercial information, personal privacy and other factors.

Federal agencies received more than three million FOIA requests last year, with the vast majority coming from individual citizens and private businesses. Others using the FOIA include conservative and liberal journalists and bloggers, who are among the most critical of how the law is administered.

A 2003 National Security Archive survey of 35 agencies that handle 97 percent of all FOIA requests the federal government receives found "a federal FOIA system in extreme disarray" due to chronic delays in responding to requests, lost requests, inadequate searches for relevant documents, lack of accountability and ignorance of the law's exemptions.

Keene and his colleagues hope to correct this. They represent several generations of conservative movement leadership and some important experiences with the FOIA. Levin, who was former Attorney General Edwin Meese's chief of staff during the Reagan administration, used the FOIA to obtain Federal Election Commission documents that helped expose the National Education Association's active campaign coordination with the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO during the Clinton years.

Speaking of the FEC, Krempasky is an up-and-comer who has led the effort to stop that agency's dangerous proposal to regulate political speech on the Internet. Ridenour leads one of the most effective shops in the Right's flourishing think-tank sector, while Berthoud's highly respected NTU has both foundation and advocacy arms. Scanlon headed the Consumer Product Safety Commission during the Reagan era and has since built Capital Research Center into a philanthropic community powerhouse.

Mooney is a key voice in the growing conservative presence in Maryland and directs a national organization that trains aspiring young journalists. Bozell's signature might surprise some but, as one of the pioneers of effective media criticism, he has long fought for a more independent media.

In their letter to Cornyn, these eight leaders quoted Patrick Henry, who said: "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." No wonder they see transparency as "big government's greatest enemy."

With folks like these joining the FOIA reform effort, the cause of accountability in government is getting stronger.

Mark Tapscott the Marilyn and Fred Guardabassi fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is director of Heritage's Center for Media and Public Policy.

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Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire