Senators demand release of ’10 most-wanted’ federal documents

Thursday, August 5, 1999

Although they often clash on issues before Congress, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., banded together yesterday to demand that the U.S. government work immediately to release the “10 Most-Wanted” documents.

McCain and Leahy, who are jointly sponsoring the Congressional Openness Act now being debated in the Senate, say that federal documents should be placed online because “taxpayers have footed the bill for these documents, and they have a right to see them.”

The two senators spoke at a news conference in Washington D.C. yesterday to unveil the report of the “10 Most Wanted” government documents that they say should be available online but aren’t. They note that the government often doesn’t post congressional research, court decisions and committee hearing transcripts on the Internet.

Perhaps oddest among the revelations: The Supreme Court of Mongolia has an official Web site, but the U.S. Supreme Court does not.

“The convenience of the Internet encourages Americans to find out more about their government,” McCain said. “Easier access to government documents and information will translate into a voting public that is more interested and aware of what their representatives are doing.”

As a sort of virtual posse, researchers with the Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch joined together earlier this summer to round up the “most wanted” records, documents and reports that should be posted on the Internet. The groups even went so far as to post “Wanted” messages on listservers, newsgroups and elsewhere to solicit contributions to the list.

Yesterday, the senators helped the two groups unveil their Top 10 list:

  1. Congressional Research Service reports. Researchers note that the reports, conducted for Congress on issues ranging from foreign affairs to health care to agriculture, are posted but available only to congressional offices.
  2. U.S. Supreme Court documents. The court doesn’t operate an official Web site. Instead, court staff refers people to one of a dozen or so unofficial court sites for court history and past decisions.
  3. State Department’s briefing book. The State Department prepares a book of answers to nearly every question the press secretary might expect on a given day. Although all of the material is cleared for public use, the information isn’t released unless a reporter asks the particular question.
  4. Pesticide Safety Database. Maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency, the database keeps track of pesticide incidents across the country.
  5. Full text of Congressional hearings. Researchers note that while some congressional committees promptly post testimony and transcripts, many don’t make such documents available until a year or more after a hearing.
  6. Court briefs. Researchers say that because court filings are public records, they should also be made available online.
  7. Congressional votes. While the votes of Congress members are available online, they are impossible to search by a member’s names, researchers say.
  8. Endangered Species Recovery Plans. These documents detail how the government plans to protect endangered species.
  9. Official Gazette of Trademarks. Although published since 1872, the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has never been available online.
  10. Circuit Court Web sites. Researchers say that many federal courts have been slow to use the Web, noting that only five of the 12 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have Web sites providing court opinions at no cost.

The Center for Democracy and Technology and OMB Watch recommended that not only should the “Top 10″ documents be made available online immediately, but that all three branches of government should institute procedures that make online public access the rule rather than the exception.

Researchers, however, praised the Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy, the Library of Congress, NASA and the U.S. Government Printing Office for their Web sites.

McCain said access isn’t easy, particularly for those citizens who don’t live in Washington, D.C. He noted that citizens have to request the congressional research reports directly from their Congress member. They would have to actually visit the Hart Building in Washington, D.C. to get official copies of lobbyist and gift disclosure reports.

“In making these documents more convenient to the public, we will save taxpayer funds in copying and mailing costs and ensure more widespread dissemination of information and efficiency of research,” McCain said.