The frenzy is on as the 113th Congress moves into its last lap and midterm electioneering hits its peak. Left in suspension is a rush of politically charged bills pulsating to get through committee, desperate to avoid sudden death at the stroke of a partisan pen.
Standing apart from the teeming mass is one critical bipartisan bill, the FOIA Improvement Act, co-authored by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. By unclogging the flow of government information, Senate 2520 will improve access to information by and about the federal government, thus to facilitate the transparency that undergirds government accountability. Because it is not sexy, pricey or viciously partisan, the FOIA Improvement Act escapes the limelight; because it affects every American’s right to know, it deserves attention, understanding and discussion.
FOIA has a deserved reputation as a wonkish tool wielded by investigative journalists and attorneys. Most of us have never taken the treacherous path that the Star Tribune’s James Eli Shiffer described in his recent series relating his “mystifying journey” into the world of FOIA.
What we fail to realize is that the information that reaches us through the press, advocacy groups, social media, even distorted propaganda, depends on someone having delved into the public record to ferret out the facts. It’s worth paying attention to FOIA, the “bill of rights” for the individual or organizational information seeker.
- Is a clean and healthy Mississippi a concern? The Environmental Protection Agency collects the essential data that informs the work of organizations such as Clean Water Action or the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
- Worried about food safety? You’ll need direct or indirect access to the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to the information mavens at Food and Water Watch, the Environmental Working Group or the Minnesota Extension Service—all of these and countless others depend on ready access to federal government data and research.
- Threatened by the oil-loaded trains traveling across Minnesota rails? Start with the U.S. Department of Transportation Research Hub to understand the players and pressure points.
- Think there may be something to climate change? Information from the feds is the essential first step.
- Questions about services for veterans?
- Planning a family vacation in Our Nation’s Capitol? You’ll want to tap into the DC Visitors’ Center.
- Worried that the FBI still has a file on you? Can’t hurt to ask.
- Want to track the FOIA Improvement Act? Thomas at the Library of Congress is just one of the options you have to follow legislation-in-progress.
Democracy rests on accountability
The point is that the federal government is the sole source of massive data and practical day-to-day information on which we as a nation and as individuals depend. Our democracy rests on the ability of citizens to keep an eye on our government and to hold our officials accountable.
Information by and about the government is the resource with the power to enlighten, misinform, shape an issue, turn a profit, and/or create a strong, accountable, functional and accountable democracy.
Truth to tell, communications and information technology have outstripped our individual and collective ability to keep up — and politics can clog the gears. That doesn’t mean we give up. Over time agencies have intentionally or inadvertently created barriers of time, cost, efficiency. That doesn’t mean we relinquish our rights.
Restories FOIA to intended purpose
The original FOIA as it was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 4, 1966 (with some reluctance) was built on a common understanding of the underlying principles. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 holds to and reinforces those principles. Bottom line: By eliminating the barriers that have thwarted the process over time, the FOIA Improvement Act restores FOIA to its original, intended – and absolutely essential — purpose.
The FOIA Improvement Act must pass through the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which both Minnesota’s senators serve. The House is already on board. Every Minnesotan can benefit from having access to information.
Want to review the FOIA basics? Check here for FOIA FAQs — print and video, English and Spanish.
Mary Treacy, the former executive director of the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, is a Hindsight Community Fellow for Minnesota 2020, on whose website this commentary originally appeared.
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