July 4, 2005, marked the 39th anniversary of the signing into law of the Freedom of Information Act, a resource for public disclosure of government documents that has become essential to keeping the process of governance at least somewhat transparent. Though first proposed by the Democratic Party in 1956, it took a decade before the FOIA was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson — one day before it would have expired in a “pocket veto” if he had not signed it.
Since then, the FOIA has been instrumental in bringing to light hundreds of thousands of documents and aiding investigations from Watergate in the 1970s to prisoner abuse at Guantanamo, Cuba, today.
The FOIA has spawned “sunshine law” statutes in all 50 U.S. states, and similar access laws in other nations. Only Sweden’s freedom of information law is older than ours.
According to Interpress News Service, the law is continuing to evolve through current legislation.
Efforts to strengthen FOIA are continuing, today by an unlikely partnership of one of the U.S. Senate’s most liberal members and one of its most conservative.
The odd couple is Senator John Cornyn, a conservative Republican from Texas and Senator Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Maine. Amid growing complaints about delays and difficulties in obtaining information from federal agencies, the pair has put together two bills.
One would create a commission to identify ways to reduce delays in processing FOIA requests. A second would establish a way for people to track their Freedom of Information Act requests on the Internet and would establish an ombudsman to mediate disputes between agencies and requesters.
It is interesting to note that with the current administration’s tight-fisted approach to information, the number of FOIA filings has increased dramatically as U.S. citizens seek to find out what our government ius up to. A recent Government Accountability Office report noted that during George Bush’s administration, FOIA requests increased 71% from 2002 to 2004, with a 68% rise in requests processed during that period, and a 14% rise in the backlog.
While the report found that 92% of 2004 requests resulted in ”responsive records” being provided in full, it noted that many of those seeking information still must sue the government to get it.