Our Opinion: Politics hurting federal government reform effort

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Efforts to open up government at any level are welcome, and a bill passed in the US House of Representative with this goal is welcome. Unfortunately, it is undermined by party politics.

The bill, passed by a voice vote, requires government agencies to adopt a presumption in favor of disclosing records rather than keeping them secret. A similar bill recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee asserts a "presumption of openness" for government records and seeks to reduce the overuse of exemptions to keep information from the public.

The report released by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asserted that the Freedom of Information law, which was enacted 50 years ago, is plagued by problems. They include unreasonable redactions, exorbitant fees for records requests, and poor communication among federal agencies.

The report's harsh criticism of the State Department for its FOIA record is echoed by an internal report released last week by the State Department's inspector general. That report faulted the department for "inaccurate and incomplete" responses to public records requests as well as missed deadlines during the four-year tenure of Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and for failing to find that Mrs. Clinton used a private e-mail account in the conducting of some official business.

However, the House report and resulting bill are not surprisingly marred by partisanship. While it is true that FOIA requests are backlogged throughout federal government, a key contributor to the backlog are the budget cuts to agencies made at the same time that FOIA requests have been increasing. Republicans who proposed and voted for funding cuts that resulted in reductions in personnel can't in fairness complain that the personnel remaining can't keep up with their heavy and growing workload.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest criticized majority Republicans for exempting themselves from their transparency requirements, observing "They're writing the rules in such a way that they don't have to play by them." Efforts to assure greater transparency on Beacon Hill runs into the same roadblock, as the governor and legislative leadership want reform measures to apply to state agencies but not to themselves.

The federal House and Senate measures are good as far as they go, but they don't go far enough. Members of Congress should not exempt themselves from these rules — House Democrats tried and failed to get a roll call vote on the measures because of their objections in this regard and others — and greater funding should be provided to government agencies so they can more efficiently address FOIA requests. Failing enactment of these changes, President Obama should veto the House-Senate compromise bill when it reaches his desk.


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