Sunshine Week: Watchdog groups check administration’s transparency

By Josh Hicks

It’s Sunshine Week. In case you’re wondering, that’s not the official end of winter or the height of spring-break season. It’s a time the National Association of News Editors has marked for promoting open government and freedom of information every year.

It’s probably no coincidence that the past few days have featured several developments relating to the Freedom of Information Act, including two reports on compliance levels for the Obama administration and a bipartisan draft bill to bolster federal transparency laws.

The watchdog group Cause of Action released a sort of open-government report card on Wednesday that gave federal agencies an average “C-minus” grade for FOIA compliance last year.

Cause of Action is run by Daniel Epstein, a former Republican counsel for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is chaired by Obama administration critic Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Cause of Action sent identical FOIA requests to 16 federal agencies in April. In its report, the group said most of the agencies were not compliant with the law, that one-quarter provided no information at all and that the average response time was 75 business days — more than double what the law requires.

“Failure by these agencies to disclose documents is a failure in their service to the American taxpayers who fund them and rely on them to be accountable and transparent,” Epstein said in a statement on Wednesday.

The Commerce Department ranked among the least compliant agencies in the report, earning an “F” grade. In contrast, the Department of Education rated as one of the most compliant with an “A” grade.

Another watchdog group, the Center for Effective Government, released more-flattering findings on Wednesday from a separate analysis. The organization found that the administration’s FOIA response rates improved in 2012, but that the percentage of replies with redacted information had grown.

In December, George Washington University’s National Security Archive released an audit that found more than half of all federal agencies had not updated their FOIA regulations since Congress and President George W. Bush mandated certain changes in 2007.

The group’s follow-up report for Sunshine Week showed little progress by the administration since December.

The White House contends that the administration has only improved government transparency.

“From the day he took office, the president committed his administration to work towards unprecedented openness in government,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

Schultz noted that Obama was the first president to release White House visitor records and that his administration has answered more FOIA requests than the previous one — something the Center for Effective Government found in its analysis.

On Tuesday, the heads of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, Reps. Issa and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), proposed draft legislation for updating FOIA.

The plan would require the executive branch to establish a single online portal for submitting and checking on FOIA requests. It would also establish a council of each agency’s chief FOIA officers that would have to meet regularly to review compliance and improvements.

In addition, the bill would establish a presumption of openness for federal agencies, following suit with a government-wide memo Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. issued in 2009. That provision would place the burden on agencies to demonstrate why disclosure could cause harm, instead of on the public to justify the release.

Cummings said of the draft legislation that it “strengthens FOIA, our most important open government law, and makes clear that the government should operate with a presumption of openness and not one of secrecy.”