Texas Times: More Texas Sunshine in Washington

By U.S. Sen. John Cornyn | Dec 29, 2007

At a time when government seems to be growing by the day, Congress made an important move at year-end towards increasing government openness, transparency and accountability. Both the Senate and House approved the most sweeping reforms to our freedom of information laws in more than a decade.

I first introduced the OPEN Government Act with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., two years ago. After months of hearings and negotiations, it was finally approved overwhelmingly in December. The Cornyn-Leahy bill will not merely be a victory for transparency in federal government operations. It will be a vital building block to strengthen our democratic process.

Texas has long had one of the nation's strongest open government laws. When I served in state government as Attorney General, I had a key role in enforcing that law. So bringing a little Texas sunshine to the federal government was a top legislative priority for me when I arrived in Washington five years ago.

The Cornyn-Leahy bill updates the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to address undue delays and onerous burdens that often greet Americans looking for information from their government.

The underlying FOIA law was initially enacted more than 40 years ago. Achieving prompt responses has been a serious problem in its enforcement from the beginning. Some pending requests for information are more than a decade old, possibly sitting in a bureaucrat's drawer somewhere. And many information requests can only be resolved through costly lawsuits, which effectively prevent citizens from receiving information they're entitled to.

The bill restores meaningful deadlines-with consequences-to the FOIA system, encouraging government agencies to provide timely responses. It creates a new initiative for tracking pending FOIA requests and an ombudsman to review agency compliance. It provides safeguards against misuse of the law, and closes loopholes used to avoid compliance. It recognizes changes in the way information is circulated, and allows journalists and public representatives equal access to information.
The OPEN Government Act bolsters the most fundamental requirement for an effective democracy-a free and informed citizenry. It reinforces Abraham Lincoln's notion of a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" by facilitating the flow of information into the hands of Americans. I have tried to advance these principles throughout my years in public office.

These FOIA reforms come after years of legislative work that required significant bipartisan cooperation. In a year when gridlock seemed periodically to take over Congress, Sen. Leahy and I are proud that we were able to achieve consensus in both chambers, and among both parties, for this bill. It is clearly one of the signature accomplishments of the current Congress.

James Madison once declared: "The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty." But I know firsthand that government, unless prodded, has a natural tendency to suppress distribution of information, particularly when it is inconvenient or embarrassing to those in office.

There are always exceptions to the rule that must be observed, such as the need to keep confidential information that could compromise our national security. Our FOIA reforms recognize that. But our underlying principle is this: when information can be made open and available, it should be.

These reforms will require federal agencies to make significant changes in the way they operate. I will be watching closely to make certain they comply. And Congress itself needs to do much more to improve transparency. The earmark process-when legislators insert narrow projects into a massive spending bill-should have far greater openness and accountability. I intend to pursue that reform as well.

Texas has long prided itself on its wide-open spaces, and open government. Accountability is also an important Texas value. Our state has been a national leader in advancing the ideals of transparency in our public business. We are all safer, and our liberty more secure, whenever Washington adopts more of that Texas sunshine.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. In addition, he is Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee.


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