EDITORIAL: Push Congress to update open records law

EDITORIAL: Push Congress to update open records law

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This should be the year that the fractious Congress finally manages to update the Freedom of Information Act. The signs are promising.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, endorsed the bipartisan-sponsored legislation known as the FOIA Improvement Act of 2015. Its bipartisan sponsors are Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. The committee agreed with its chairman and unanimously backed it.

A similar bipartisan pairing exists in the House, with Reps. Darrell Issa, R-California, and Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, sponsoring companion legislation.

That’s a lot of bipartisan unanimity from this Congress, and it’s not surprising. FOIA needs the update. It’s hard to imagine lawmakers objecting to wording that requires agencies to operate under a “presumption of openness” when considering requests for release of public information under FOIA. The act also attempts to curb “overuse” of exemptions to withhold information.

The Office of Government Information Services would gain needed authority and independence as it creates a consolidated online portal for FOIA requests.

Only the reality that the clock ran out on similar legislation late last year tempers our optimism. The need for citizens to access information about their government more easily remains high.

Surely the recent revelations about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s troubling use of personal email rather than government email reinforces the need for clear, simple and affordable public access to government records.

Grassley set the right tone in his endorsement: “The government ought to be accountable to the people, and transparency yields accountability. Unfortunately, federal agencies continue to find creative ways to avoid the level of transparency that FOIA was designed to foster. This bill takes an important step to stop agencies from hiding behind an exemption solely to protect their public image.”

FOIA allows ordinary citizens to hold leaders accountable. Anyone, not just the press, has the right to request records that reveal how government conducts its business.

In these times of high-dollar donors getting inordinate attention from politicians, this act would help give ordinary citizens a bit more heft in their efforts to access information they are legally entitled to review.

The money and business of government belongs to the people. Want to know how the Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring pollution in Wisconsin? Or perhaps check in on agriculture oversight? The 1966 FOIA is there to assist citizens.

Wisconsin’s congressional delegation — along with too many others — failed to demand leaders schedule a final vote last December. They can help right that wrong by stepping forward this week — Sunshine Week — to demand quick approval. The reforms for FOIA are needed, reasonable and timely.

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