If you are among the Americans who didn't know that the federal Freedom of Information Act became law 50 years ago this July 4, you are in the majority. Even fewer Americans know that this landmark public information law has failed to live up to its intent, especially in the age of electronic communications that could make government vastly more transparent to average citizens.
What Americans don't know about FOIA can hurt them. When it works, it has revealed problems in government that were not fixed until this sunshine law was applied. For example, it was information disclosed through FOIA that revealed that some Department of Veterans Affairs employees falsified reports on how long veterans waited for care to cover up terribly long waits.
However, VA and other agencies often drag their feet in responding to information requests, which may languish for a year or more.
Even though the Obama administration says the agencies have been instructed to presume that records are open, unless specifically closed, journalists and other citizens frequently are denied access to documents deemed not public by the executive agencies. "Presumption of openness" must be written into law.
To further avoid disclosure, agencies have followed up long delays in response with requirements for substantial payments by requesters before information is disclosed.
Last week, the U.S. House took an important step toward fixing those FOIA problems.
On a voice vote, the House approved H.R. 653 and sent this FOIA Act to the Senate. Both the House bill and a nearly identical Senate bill (S. 337) were introduced last February with bipartisan sponsorship, both had committee hearings with broad popular support and little opposition.
The bills didn't go anywhere for months until on Jan. 7, the House legislation was reported out of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Five days later, H.R 653 was agreed to in the House on a motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill as amended in committee. Now the Senate must act.
Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., wasn't among the 55 House co-sponsors. Neither Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., nor Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., were listed as co-sponsors of S. 337 as of last week.
Tester has previously supported FOIA legislation, and we urge him to be a leader in moving these important reforms forward this winter. We call on Daines also to support S. 337, which was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Those two sponsors from distant points on the political spectrum are working together to improve public information. Montana's two senators should join them.
We applaud the House vote, which shows that Democrats and Republicans can work together for pubic good.
"Getting this legislation through the Senate and signed into law would be a big win for transparency and helping the American people obtain the information they are entitled to see," said Paul Fletcher, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
There's momentum for more sunshine with the House vote. Senators should do their part to fix FOIA by 50.