A new federal law meant to strengthen the way government agencies process Freedom of Information Act requests would be undermined by a provision in President George W. Bush’s new 2009 budget proposal, according to government transparency groups and a lawmaker who sponsored the open records legislation.Congress recently passed the OPEN Government Act of 2007, a measure that reforms the way FOIA requests to federal officials are processed. It was signed into law by the president on New Year’s Eve.
The legislation requires agencies to implement a tracking system of requests and to report how many requests are approved and denied. It also creates the Office of Government Information Services, a new agency meant to be an independent mediator to resolve FOIA disputes between the government and requesters.
Traditionally the U.S. Justice Department has overseen FOIA operations, including training other agencies on how to respond to inquiries and defending agencies when they are sued by requesters.
“But there’s an inherent conflict on interest,” says Rick Blum, coordinator for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups that advocate for government transparency. According to Blum, there is a conflict with the Justice Department mediating disputes while it is acting as the legal counsel for agencies that get sued under FOIA.
Because of this, the Office of Government Information Services was moved “as far away from political decision making as you can put it,” Blum says, as part of the National Archives and Records Administration, to act as an independent mediator between government officials and requesters.
But a month after the legislation was signed into law, the president released his 2009 budget proposal stripping the Office of Government Information Services from the national archives and requesting that the Justice Department use its existing resources to fill the gap.
The move sparked a harsh reaction from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a sponsor of the OPEN Government Act, who charged in a statement that “once again, the White House has shown they intend to act contrary to the intent of Congress.”
The president’s budget proposal sets the tone for lawmakers to debate the national budget and come to a consensus.
The Justice Department has not responded to a request for comment.