Sunshine Week kicks off this year under particularly gloomy skies given debate surrounding the use of emails by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presumptive favorite for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election.
One doesn’t have to work hard to conclude that Clinton’s efforts to maintain a private email account throughout her time in the State Department had less to do with convenience, as she contends, than secrecy.
Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency, presents an opportunity to recognize such tendencies of those in office to keep information out of public view. It’s also a time to reflect on the primal importance of allowing Americans to monitor what government does in their name. The rights to attend government meetings and to request government documents ensure that people can hold public officials accountable.
It wasn’t always this way. The notion of sunshine in government dates back little more than a century, and Congress didn’t codify it in the Freedom of Information Act until 1966.
As with many laws, FOIA has started to show its age after a few decades. Some updates are in order. One of them is the FOIA Improvement Act, which has been introduced in both the House and Senate, and would create a presumption of openness when it comes to federal records. It preserves necessary exemptions for some secrets, but it makes clear that officials should invoke them sparingly.
When people ask to see Environmental Protection Agency records, for example, they should not have to justify why. Rather, EPA officials should explain why they want to withhold them, and their reason ought to be a good one.
Even when there is justification to deny a records request, the act would direct agencies to release as much information as possible while protecting whatever interest needs protecting. Partial disclosure is preferable to no disclosure.
The FOIA Improvement Act also makes it explicitly clear that agencies may not keep secrets “merely because disclosure of the information may be embarrassing to the agency or because of speculative abstract concerns.” Records that embarrass an agency because it messed up are among the most important for the public to see. Without them, there can be no accountability.
Transparency is not a partisan issue. The act’s bipartisan sponsors include Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. Liberals might want to know about the National Security Agency’s spying on Americans and the Bush administration’s torture policies. Republicans might want to know about Hillary Clinton using a private email account to conduct public business and why thousands of emails disappeared at the IRS. The agendas differ, but the mechanism and the public good are the same.
President Barack Obama once claimed that his would be the “most transparent administration in history.” We’ll leave that to historians to render final judgment. From what we’ve seen the last six years, secrecy has trumped citizen access repeatedly. Indeed, many of the provisions in the reform act mirror Obama proclamations that went unfulfilled.
A similar version of the improvement act would have passed Congress last year, but dithering in the Senate led to its demise in December as the session ran out. Its return this year offers House Speak John Boehner, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of Congress the chance to reaffirm that government in sunshine best serves the American people.