Openness must govern government, Sen. Cornyn says

Thursday, March 17, 2005

ARLINGTON, Va. — “In a healthy democracy, we the people need to know the good, the bad and the ugly.” That was the assessment of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, as he addressed the 2005 National Freedom of Information Day Conference.

“Congress and the Courts: Confronting Secrecy” was the theme of this year’s conference, held as usual on James Madison’s birth date.

The conference brought together access advocates, government officials, lawyers, librarians, journalists, educators and others to discuss the latest issues and developments in freedom of information. It was sponsored by the First Amendment Center, in cooperation with the American Library Association.

The FOI Day Conference came midway through Sunshine Week, an initiative by news media and other organizations to create a public dialogue on the value of open government, which began March 13.

Cornyn, an ardent open-government advocate since his time as Texas attorney general, gave the day’s keynote address, “FOI and the Consent of the Governed.” In his speech, Cornyn emphasized the importance of citizens’ knowing what is going on in their government.

Transparency and openness uphold “the basic premise of our self-governed democracy that no government rules without consent of the governed,” he said. “When we’re talking about consent of the governed … we’re talking about informed consent. And informed consent is impossible without both a free and responsible press and open and accessible government.”

Many federal officials share his commitment to government openness, Cornyn said. One such official, he said, is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a fellow Texan and former state official familiar with Texas’ well-established open-government laws. Gonzales affirmed his commitment to openness during his confirmation hearing, Cornyn said, when asked if he would be willing to work with Cornyn on the issue.

Cornyn has also garnered support from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The two have joined together to sponsor two bills: the OPEN Government Act of 2005 (S. 394) and the Faster FOIA Act of 2005 (S. 589).

The day before the conference, Cornyn chaired a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the OPEN Government Act — the first such FOIA oversight hearing since 1992, Cornyn said.

The OPEN Government Act, Cornyn said, is designed to “strengthen the FOIA and close loopholes”; “help requesters receive timely responses”; “ensure that agencies have strong incentives to act on requests in a timely fashion”; and provide officials responsible for responding to FOIA requests “with all the tools they need to ensure that government remains open and accessible.”

“As a whole the OPEN Government Act reiterates the principle that government is based on not the need to know, but on our fundamental right to know as the American people,” he said.

Cornyn went on to say that the Faster FOIA Act (which the Senate Judiciary Committee today voted unanimously to send to the full Senate) would create a commission to recommend ways for reducing delays in responding to FOIA requests.

“By reforming our information policies to guarantee true access to all our citizens to government records, we will revitalize the informed consent that keeps America free,” he said.

Later in the day, representatives from Cornyn’s and Leahy’s offices joined other panelists to talk about the two bills in greater detail during the discussion “Stirrings in Congress: Strengthening Access.” Panelists also discussed the Restore FOIA Act, which Leahy introduced in the Senate on March 15, and the Restore Open Government Act, which Rep. Henry Waxman introduced in the House during the last session and plans to reintroduce in the current session.

Encouraged by the flurry of legislative action, moderator Pete Weitzel, of the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, referred to the panel as the “good news panel.”

Panelist Tara Magner shared Weitzel’s sentiment.

“Two years ago, I would speak at FOIA events, and it was doom and gloom,” said Magner, counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she works for Leahy. “A year ago, I got tired of doing that, and I looked for anything positive to say. But I think this year we have a lot of positive things to say. We have bipartisan bills starting to move through Congress. … In addition to legislative movement, we have a greater awareness among conservatives and liberals that secrecy is dangerous, it’s costly.”

Other topics discussed during the day were access to online court records and access and the courts.

Also during the conference, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information received the Eileen Cooke Award and Greg Schmidt of LIN Television Corp. accepted the James Madison Award on behalf of his father, the late Richard Schmidt. Both awards were presented by the ALA.

At the end of the day, conference organizer and First Amendment Center Ombudsman Paul McMasters gave attendees the charge to continue fighting for openness.

“We live in dangerous times,” McMasters said. Ordinary citizens “know that something’s not right when they can’t find out about the dangers around them. They know that something’s not right when their local elected officials are forced to enter into secrecy agreements with federal officials for the rationale of protecting the homeland that in essence puts them in direct conflict with their own constituencies.

“When we reach that point, we have to do a solemn examination of where we are and what we’re doing and how we can work together to make sure that an open society surely is open.”

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