Tuesday, March 30, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
If you ask the federal government for information, be prepared to wait. The federal law that governs the release of documents, the Freedom of Information Act, requires a timely response, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get one.
Information has often been slow to come out of the federal government, despite the requirements. For example, the Homeland Security Department had a backlog of nearly 19,000 FOIA requests in 2009. The Justice Department’s backlog was nearly 5,000 requests.
Sens. Patrick Leahy and John Cornyn recently introduced legislation designed to address the way the government handles public requests for information. The Faster FOIA Act would create a bipartisan commission to study backlogs and report back to Congress with recommendations to shorten the time the public waits for information, and otherwise improve the law.
The delay in releasing information, often just a stalling tactic, is unconscionable. The public has a right to know — quickly — what is going on in its government.
That is one thought that should unify people of every political persuasion. Take, for example, Leahy and Cornyn, a very unlikely pair. Leahy is a Democrat from Vermont, Cornyn a Republican from Texas. But in announcing the bill, Leahy made an important point: “I have said many times that open government is neither a Democratic issue, nor a Republican issue — it is truly an American value and virtue that we all must uphold.”
Indeed, and the New England liberal and the Texas conservative have worked for several years to make open government a bipartisan issue, having successfully sponsored other legislation intended to make government more open to the public.
Over the years, FOIA has had a huge effect. Information released through the law has led to the recall of dangerous products, including the Ford Pinto and a widely used food dye. There have been countless other stories in which fraud, corruption and waste have been exposed, as have controversial government policies. (The Bush administration’s infamous torture memos came out through FOIA requests.)
Before the law went into effect in 1967, the public didn’t have a clear right to know. In the years since, Congress has continued to push federal agencies, which are mandated to have offices that respond to public requests for information. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy hasn’t always worked with the public to make information quickly or easily available, and that’s why the work of Leahy and Cornyn is so important.
After all of the rancor in the past year, it is good to see two senators from opposing political viewpoints come together on such a vital issue.