Republicans, Democrats, and Transparency.

Is this good news or bad news?

The new Republican chairman of the House oversight committee is demanding details of every request for federal records made by citizens, journalists, and others during the last five years under the Freedom of Information Act. It's part of a broad congressional inquiry into President Barack Obama's promises to improve government transparency. The chairman, Representative Darrell Issa of California, said the committee wants to make sure that "all federal agencies respond in a timely, substantive and non-discriminatory manner" to requests for records under the information law.

Well, there could be a number of things going on here. This could have a purely partisan intent – Issa may suspect that the Obama administration has been discriminating in the way it fills FOIA requests against conservative groups, or corporations, or something. He may therefore be hoping to uncover something he can use to bludgeon the administration with. Or he may be hoping to find something out about those making the requests. Finally, he could be initiating this investigation because of his deep commitment to government openness and transparency, and his fervent desire that all FOIA requests be fulfilled promptly.

I'd like to believe it's the latter, but that's a bit hard to swallow. In October of 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a letter to every federal agency, essentially instructing them that the default policy should be to deny FOIA requests, so long as they could come up with some justification for it. "When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part," he wrote, "you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions unless they lack a sound legal basis." Three weeks later, Ashcroft's boss used an executive order to repeal the Presidential Records Act, which had provided that presidential records concerning topics other than national security would be open to historians, journalists, and the public 12 years after the president left office. On Barack Obama's first day in office, he repealed Bush's repeal.

The pattern in recent years has been that Democratic presidents establish policies that are designed, in theory anyway, to make government more transparent, which includes fulfilling FOIA requests in a reasonably timely fashion, while Republican presidents do just the opposite. Maybe Darrell Issa is going to vigorously criticize any failure to comply with FOIA by the Bush administration and act as an angel on the Obama administration's shoulder, urging them to greater openness. But I wouldn't bet on it.

-- Paul Waldman

You may also like