Open Government Legislation
What Happened During Sunshine Week?
Here is a news report from ombwatch.org
Sunshine Week is an annual effort by civic groups, libraries, universities, legislators and others to highlight the importance of open government. During this year's Sunshine Week (March 11-17), many legislative proposals to increase government oversight and transparency moved forward in Congress. The bills address contractor responsibility, environmental information, Freedom of Information Act reform, whistleblower protections, and other important aspects of an open and accountable government.
Federal contracting is growing at a rapid and dangerous pace. In the past six years, the amount spent on federal contracts has nearly doubled, from $207 billion in FY 2000 to almost $400 billion in FY 2005. For all the federal government work contractors perform, they remain essentially unaccountable to the public. The increase in federal contracts and lack of accountability contributed to last year's passage of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (P.L. 109-282), co-sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL). The bill requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to create a searchable website that provides information about all federal spending, including government contracts, grants, loans, etc. In October 2006, OMB Watch launched FedSpending.org which provides access to much of the contract and grant information that the new law would cover.
More needs to be done to increase oversight and accountability of contractors. In particular, the following three types of information should be made publicly available:
- Information on contractor performance on past contracts
- Contractors' record of compliance with federal laws and regulations, especially health, environmental, environmental, civil rights, and employment laws
- Information on lawsuits and legal actions brought against contractors and their subdivisions
Public disclosure of such information will increase public oversight for federal contractors and help ensure that the public's money is being spent wisely. The Honest Leadership and Accountability in Contracting Act of 2007 (S. 606), introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-SD), is a good first step in eliminating fraud and abuse in federal contracts. Also, the Accountability in Contracting Act (H.R. 1362), sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), would "change federal acquisition law to require agencies to limit the use of abuse-prone contracts, to increase transparency and accountability in federal contracting, and to protect the integrity of the acquisition workforce." The bill was passed by the House 347 to 73 on March 15. Take action to support Congress' efforts to increase contractor responsibility.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized rules in December 2006 that weaken toxic reporting under the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program, despite enormous opposition to the changes. The changes allow facilities to avoid detailed reporting of toxic pollution of less than 5,000 pounds as long as less than 2,000 pounds are released to the environment. The EPA is also permitting facilities that manage up to 500 pounds of persistent bioaccumulative chemicals such as lead and mercury to avoid detailed reporting of the waste. The proposed changes have been met with stiff resistance throughout the rulemaking process. As documented in an OMB Watch report, over 122,000 public comments were submitted in response to EPA's plans to cut TRI reporting, and more than 99.9 percent opposed the agency's proposals.
On Feb. 14, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Hilda Solis (D-CA) announced companion bills to restore TRI and undo the EPA's recently finalized reporting rollbacks. Take action to support these bills.
Freedom of Information Act Reform
The mounting problems regarding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are well-documented. The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government found that even though FOIA requests were down in 2005, the backlog of unanswered requests rose from 20 percent of total requests made in 2004 to 31 percent in 2005. In addition to the increase in unanswered requests, requesters had to wait longer for replies. In response to increasing pressure to relieve agency backlogs and improve FOIA procedures, President Bush issued Executive Order 13392 on Dec. 14, 2005. The order, though, does not go far enough to relieve agency backlogs. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently stated, "Despite increasing the numbers of requests processed, many agencies did not keep pace with the volume of requests that they received."
Legislative reform of FOIA was deemed necessary to relieve these problems and restore open government. By a vote of 308 to 117, the House passed the Freedom of Information Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1309) on March 14. The bill restates the 20-day response requirement and imposes penalties on agencies that fail to meet the requirement. The bill also creates a FOIA ombudsman at the National Archives to serve as a resource for the public in requesting documents and to exercise oversight of FOIA compliance. Additionally, the bill offers a needed correction and expansion of access to attorney's fees for those whose FOIA requests are unjustly denied. Finally, the bill would restore the presumption of disclosure under FOIA that was eliminated by the John Ashcroft memorandum soon after 9/11. In a letter submitted to the committee in support of the bill, OMB Watch stated, "The increasingly dire state of FOIA procedures and backlogs across government agencies and the inadequacy of the agency improvement plans calls for congressional reform, and we wish to add our support of H.R. 1309 in the hopes that it is eventually signed into law."
Other Important Pieces of Open Government Legislation
In addition to the Accountability in Contracting Act and the FOIA Amendments Act, the House has passed two important pieces of legislation:By a vote of 333 to 93, the House on March 14 passed the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R. 1255), which would ensure that presidential records are made available to the public and would nullify President Bush's order that gave former presidents the authority to withhold documents.By a vote of 331 to 94, the House on March 14 passed the Whistleblower Enhancement Protection Act of 2007, which would offer additional protections to federal government employees who bring forward evidence of corruption, fraud, and abuse at their agencies.
Sunshine Week promotes the importance of an open and transparent government. Access to accurate information is at the foundation of a well-functioning democracy, and the legislative efforts over this past week are great strides in the effort to provide greater access to government information. OMB Watch encourages individuals to preserve and protect an open and accountable government by taking action and encouraging their representatives and senators to support the important open government legislative initiatives.
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