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Casting Sunlight on Secret Government and Its Contractors

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once wrote: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Indeed, openness and transparency are essential for a healthy and functioning democracy. Unfortunately, despite lofty initial campaign promises by the Obama administration, widespread government secrecy has only worsened in recent years and access to information by journalists and activists is disturbingly limited.

Last week was “Sunshine Week” — an initiative to bring attention and awareness — and light — to the issue of open government. Started in 2005 by The American Society of News Editors, Sunshine Week is an occasion to educate the public by articulating the many challenges faced by those who work to keep a watchful eye on the mechanisms of government. Sunshine Week coincides with “Freedom of Information Day” which happens every year on or around the birthday of founding father James Madison (March 16), who was a staunch advocate for open government.

Here are five areas where critical improvements in providing citizens access to information must be made:

1. Put the full text of government contracts online

When it comes to government spending and government contracts, the devil is in the details. Unfortunately, these details are often unavailable to the public. Free access to government contracts by taxpayers, the media, scholars, watchdog groups, and even other bidders would be an important step to publicize how our government does its business with taxpayer money. Putting the text of these contracts online would encourage fiscal responsibility, propagate better and fairer practices in contracting, provide taxpayers better savings and value, encourage active citizenship and hinder corruption. Each year hundreds of billions of dollars in federal government contracts, grants, leaseholds and licenses are awarded to corporations. Access to the terms of these deals should be readily available for public inspection.

The Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act is a bill that aims to improve the quality of publicly accessible government information, set uniform data standards, collect spending data, and examine the information to root out waste, fraud or abuse. It was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) last year and passed in an overwhelming 388-1 vote. The bill, however, does not yet require the full text of government contracts to be put online. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Representative Issa both told me that they support giving citizens easy online access to the full text of government contracts, but actions speak louder than words. They should jointly offer an amendment to the DATA Act to make it easier for the American people to see where and how public officials are spending tax dollars. (There is precedent — when Barack Obama was in the Senate, he co-sponsored a bill with Tom Coburn to put the full text of government contracts online.)

2. Easy online access to voting records of Members of Congress.

Consider the arduous lengths many citizens must currently go through to simply compile the timely voting records of their members of Congress. In an age where there is a simple app for nearly everything, the lack of easy, searchable voting records on the websites of each member of Congress is unacceptable. How about a Congressional resolution revising the mandate for the Congress.gov website (formerly Thomas.gov) that could provide a database of Congressional voting records, searchable by member and subject, that is free, simple and easy to use? Members of Congress should then be required to provide a clear link to this information on their websites. If citizens can easily donate to electoral campaigns from their cell phone, they should be able to monitor the voting record of their representatives with equal ease. Notably, some members of Congress, such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) make their voting record easily available on their websites. Unfortunately this is the exception, not the norm.

3. Improved responses to FOIA requests.

When President Obama took office, he declared that his administration would be the “most transparent in history.” Unfortunately, this turned out to be an overstatement. It was widely reported that last year the Obama administration denied a record number of Freedom of Information Act requests. What is their most cited reasoning for this lack of disclosure? “National security concerns.”

According to the Associated Press: “The administration cited more legal exceptions it said justified withholding materials and refused a record number of times to turn over files quickly that might be especially newsworthy. Most agencies also took longer to answer records requests, the analysis found.”
Years ago, the Navy refused to divulge to environmentalists the amount of sewage dumped into bays from naval bases. “National security concerns” was the same excuse then — the Navy brass were concerned about the Russians or Chinese using that data to determine how many sailors were stationed at a particular base. The environment suffered as a result of this government secrecy.

Check out Center for Effective Government’s 2014 Freedom of Information Act scorecard which found that out of 15 federal agenciesnone earned exemplary scores and only eight earned what is deemed “passing grades.” The highest graded agency — the Social Security Administration — received a “B.” The agencies that received a failing grade were: the Department of Labor, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of State. See the full report card here.

This lack of access should be considered unacceptable to all citizens who believe in a free democracy.

4. Public Access to Congressional Research Reports.

The Congressional Research Service regularly creates hundreds of reports on policy matters that are available exclusively to members of Congress and their staff. These reports, which are highly regarded for their quality, are generally unavailable to the public. (Occasionally, they are reproduced and sold by third parties or leaked to websites that freely make the reports available, such as Federation of American Scientists andNational Council for Science and the Environment.) The CRS receives an annual budget of over $100 million to produce these reports, which the taxpayers cannot regularly use to educate themselves on legislative matters.

In the past, there has been legislation introduced to rectify this problem and to put these reports online for public use, but it has stalled in Congress. It’s time for another push so that this valuable research is available to all.

5. Preserve the people’s printer

In the past few decades, the GPO has shifted much of the information it provides online. As a result, it has printed less and even outsourced more of its printing work. The documents that are still printed are often unreasonably expensive.

While supporting the digital realm grants many Americans access to government documents, there are millions of people who do not have access to broadband internet. These “unconnected” people are often the most vulnerable and isolated members of our society — the poor, the elderly, and the rural. These Americans must not be left in the dark. See our report on this matter, titled The Peoples’ Printer: Time for a Reawakening.

When the public has ready access to information about the inner workings of their government and the actions taken by their elected representatives, they can better voice their opinions and cast more informed votes. However, when this information remains concealed behind bureaucracy, red tape and veiled notions of national security, elected officials can more easily become beholden to corporate interests. An open government allows citizens better resources to exercise their civic powers and responsibilities. Let the people know! For information is currency of democracy.

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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