home > archive > 2005 > this article

Search this site Search WWW
Because government should have accountability

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted February 28, 2005

Does our government exist to serve the people or visa versa?

If the answer is the former then citizens certainly have the right to know exactly what their government is doing, particularly in cases in which national security is not involved. Recently, Chuck Lindell of the Austin American-Statesman reported that in a 2002 report to Congress the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department were often not quickly processing requests for information.

Big Government prefers to operate in the cloak of darkness. That was demonstrated by the experience that Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), Chairman of the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee, had with the EPA.

The Environmental Protection Agency made discretionary grant after discretionary grant to environmental organizations with little oversight or public knowledge. It was all at the discretion of EPA bureaucrats who showered federal dollars upon their pals in their favorite environmental organizations. Report after report was issued citing the need for greater accountability and competition in the grant-making process. Very little if anything happened until Senator Inhofe held hearings and demanded EPA start coming clean about how it was spending the taxpayer's money and what it would do to ensure greater accountability to the public. The EPA now is posting grants and the recipients online.

I cannot say with certainty that the EPA was cold-shouldering requests by citizens or the news media for information about grants. However, the EPA secrecy demonstrates the mentality within bureaucracies. Too many bureaucrats prefer being as unaccountable as possible, even in a country such as ours in which the law clearly favors release of information.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law on July 4, 1966. It was supposed to ensure openness to the public on the part of the Federal Government's agencies and departments when the public and news media requested information. Before that law citizens had to prove a "need to know" to obtain information from the Federal Government. That changed to a "right to know."

There admittedly are cases in which national security must restrict the public right to know because public access would provide information useful to terrorists. However, there are many cases in which FOIA can be beneficial to rooting out government waste.

Would you believe that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration had lost millions of dollars worth of property? That's a fact. The agency that could send a man to the moon could not keep proper track of its property. Houston Chronicle reporter Patty Reinert wrote an article "NASA Can't Find Millions in Property" on February 27, 2004 that explained NASA lost track of 200 computers, a $30,000 replica of an international space station module and the $69,000 stand needed to support it, and a $1,500 ice machine. The documents were obtained through FOIA by a San Antonio television station.

Many states have enacted substantial equivalents to the Federal FOIA. Journalists have used FOIAs at the state level to unearth information about flagrant government waste and incompetence.

A few years ago, a state-level FOIA request from the Chicago Sun-Times forced the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to admit that 214 children were "absent from placement." Even more shocking was the admission that 17 were thought to have been abducted. Later a task force discovered that there were over 460 missing wards.

Baltimore Sun reporter Stephen Kiehl wrote a few years ago about the tendency of buses operated by the Maryland Transportation Agency to break down more than buses operated by other transit agencies. Buses were heading for the repair shop on average every 976 miles versus 2,700 miles for other transit agencies. Believe it or not, the Booz Allen Hamilton report obtained by FOIA alleged that some drivers for the MTA were actually filling out the daily inspection report a week in advance.

Conservative watchdog groups do not use FOIA enough in the opinion of my old friend Ken Boehm, Chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, who authored an amendment introduced by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) in the mid-1990s to have FOIA requests apply to the Legal Services Corporation for the cases handled by its grantees.

LSC is a controversial agency in conservative circles. It uses taxpayer dollars to fund a left-wing legal agenda. Grantees were exempt from FOIA because they are not federal agencies. Even some supporters of the Legal Services Corporation recognized that was wrong and supported the Burton Amendment.

The National Legal and Policy Center also used FOIA requests to reveal that FDA Commissioner David Kessler was overcharging the government for travel expenses, which led to unfavorable news coverage. Soon after Kessler announced his resignation. However, Boehm recalls that the FDA was successful in dragging its heels in releasing Kessler's appointment schedules. NLPC wanted to see if Kessler was meeting clandestinely with individuals with significant financial interests that would have been affected by the FDA. FDA regulations hold that meetings by higher-level FDA officials should be disclosed to the public and the news media.

Boehm says, "FOIA is an excellent tool for rooting out wasteful spending. Conservatives should use this tool more often."

Now, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have introduced a bill called the OPEN Government Act to ensure that government acts promptly and efficiently in responding to FOIA requests.

FOIA requestors will be able to monitor the status oft their requests by a hotline. Meaningful deadlines will be restored to ensure agencies and departments of the Federal Government are handling FOIA requests in a timely and efficient manner. Those agencies found by a court or official investigation to have been dragging their heels will have their recalcitrance reported to Congress. Any new exemptions from FOIA created by Congress must be expressly labeled in legislation. Independent journalists will not be prevented from obtaining fee waivers because they are not affiliated with an establishment news outfit. If a government outsources its recordkeeping to a private contractor those records will be subject to FOIA just as if they had been maintained by the government agency itself.

Concern has also been expressed about the "over classification" of documents due to national security concerns. Senator Cornyn, a conservative, expresses concern about this. When speaking about the OPEN Government Act on the Senate Floor, he said "There is broad consensus across the aisle, the political spectrum, that we currently over-classify Government documents, and that many documents and much information is placed beyond the public view without any real justification." Carol A. Haave, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Counterintelligence and Security, conceded last year that "We over classify information…say, 50-50." An Office of Government Services would examine FOIA policies, including those that cause concern from a security standpoint, and suggest changes in the expectation that sensible mediation could avoid costly litigation.

Senator Cornyn made clear that the new alternative media – website operators, Internet bloggers – stand to benefit from this bill. The beneficiaries extend beyond that as Senator Cornyn said, "By reforming our information policies in order to guarantee true access by all citizens to Government records, we will revitalize the informed consent that keeps America free." FOIA allows the citizens and the news media to keep a close watch on the Federal Government.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.


Printer friendly version
Printer friendly version
Send a link to this page!
Send a link to this story

Printer friendly version Send a link to this page!

Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!



1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.