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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Senators Cornyn, Leahy Intro "The Open Government Act of 2005" to Reform FOIA, Senator Recognizes Importance of Blogs

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) today jointly introduced the first major overhaul in nearly a decade of the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Cornyn-Leahy proposal addresses major problems with FOIA administration, case law and enforcement, based on suggestions received during the past year from open government advocates on the Right and Left.

Cornyn is the major force behind the proposal. Prior to his 2000 election to the U.S. Senate, Cornyn was Texas' Attorney General, a position in which he became a hero to public right to know advocates with his aggressive championing and enforcement of the Lone Star state's open government laws. Now the Texas senator wants to do the same at the federal level for the FOIA.

Bloggers should know that Cornyn and his Senate Judiciary Committee staff members had them in mind while drafting this legislation. He acknowledged as much this morning during a floor speech introducing the FOIA reforms:

"I want to thank my colleague from Vermont, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee who’s long been a champion of these issues, for his hard work on this bill, and together our offices have spent a great deal of time meeting with open government advocates.
"I’m proud to say that this bill is supported by a broad coalition across the ideological spectrum, because I believe that this legislation should not be a partisan or special interest bill, indeed it is not...
"As the Senator from Vermont said at a recent Judiciary Committee hearing:
'I have always found that every administration, Republican or Democratic, would love to keep a whole lot of things from the public. They do something they are proud of, they will send out 100 press releases. Otherwise, they will hold it back. We have the FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, which is a very good thing. It keeps both Democratic and Republican Administrations in line.'
"I agree with that, and I would say that essentially what we’re talking about is human nature. It’s only natural that government leaders want recognition for their successes, but not their failures. But we as a healthy democracy need to know the good, the bad and the ugly.
"The news media is of course the main way people get information about government. The media pushes government entities, and elected officials and bureaucrats and agencies to release information that the people have a right to know, occasionally exposing waste, fraud and abuse. "And hopefully, more often than that, letting the American people know what a good job their public officials are doing. But we’ve also seen in recent years the expansion of other outlets for sharing information outside of the mainstream media – to online communities, discussion groups, and blogs."

I've had numerous conversations in recent months with Sen. Cornyn's Judiciary Committee staffers responsible for developing the FOIA reform package and found them instantly receptive to and thoroughly understanding the role of blogs in the news and public policy debate processes. This is reflected in the proposal and will be important as bloggers become more frequent and adept users of the FOIA to break news and to advance the public policy discussion and debate.

Of course, everybody who cares about preserving representative government has an interest in maintaining the public's right to know what the government is doing, subject only to legitimate national security, law enforcement and proprietary business considerations. As Cornyn said this morning in his remarks to the Senate:

"I believe all these outlets can and do contribute to the health of our political democracy. But let me make this clear, Mr. President, this is not just a bill for the media, lest anybody be confused. This is a bill that will benefit every man, woman and child in America who cares about the federal government, cares about how the federal government operates, and ultimately cares about the success of this great democracy."

This is important legislation and the Blogosphere will be wise to champion its passage. A key part of the process of blogs becoming more important and influential in news and public policy is understanding and taking advantage of laws like the FOIA.

For more on the Cornyn-Leahy proposal, go here.