When truth is in short supply, democracy is in danger

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Congressional debates on major issues significantly influence the direction of democracy. Ideally, a commitment to truth infuses and informs these debates. The reality appears to be something less than that. Much less, according to two political scientists who closely examined more than 40 important debates in the House and Senate and found that “the truth” appeared to crop up only 25% of the time.

In 43 debates examined, only 11 key claims were primarily fact-based, another 16 were clearly “unsubstantiated” and 16 stirred together fact and fiction, report Gary Mucciaroni of Temple University and Paul J. Quirk of the University of British Columbia in their new book, Deliberative Choices: Debating Public Policy in Congress.

Why is the record of our elected leaders on both sides of the aisle so frequently and woefully detached from the facts on vital issues?

Mucciaroni told The Washington Post: “We don’t pretend to know whether they are lying, are ignorant, or misperceive the facts and informed opinion on an issue. Instead of using ‘flatly lying’ we prefer ‘flatly incorrect’ or ‘flatly inaccurate.’”

Whatever the label attached to the manner in which officials conduct the nation’s business, Americans take great risks in political deliberation when they go only by the words of their leaders. That may well be one reason that requests for government information under the federal Freedom of Information Act have set records every year for the past six years.

Discounting 16 million requests to the Social Security Administration, 2.7 million FOIA requests went to federal agencies last year, an increase of 65,543 over the previous year and a whopping 27% more than in 2002. That’s a real indicator of the public’s interest in what the government stores in its files, ostensibly for our benefit. And the public persists despite delay and denial by federal agencies in responding to requests.

According to the third annual Secrecy Report Card by OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of freedom-of-information advocates, “the processing of FOIA requests remains mired in backlogs.” The number of FOIA requests held over from one year to the next has increased by 43% since 2002, or about 200,000 requests.

Though the OTG report card showed some improvement in performance by federal agencies, processing delays ranged from a median 10 days to more than 100 days. The report noted that with the worst 50 agencies the median wait was from three months to more than four years, depending on the agency.

Bottom line: Citizens’ ability to obtain unclassified government information remains severely curtailed, their ability to inform themselves thwarted.

Noting that every administration tries to control information, Patrice McDermott, OTG director, said, “the current administration has restricted access to information about our government and its policies at unprecedented levels. The result has been the suppression of discussions about our country’s direction and its security. How can the public or even Congress make informed decisions under such circumstances?”

Testifying for the National Newspaper Association and the Sunshine in Government Initiative before a House subcommittee this summer, Tonda Rush said the FOI act “has become less reliable, less effective and a less timely vehicle for informing the public of government activities and newsworthy stories.”

Rush and others say Congress must create alternatives to litigation to resolve differences between agencies and requesters; provide incentives for speedier, fuller responses and lower the costs of appealing denials.

Some in Congress have responded. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told the House subcommittee that trends toward more exceptions to the act, lack of timely responses and lack of punishment for such failure were the most serious problems with administering the law. They are sponsoring three bills to tackle some of those problems.

The problems are compounded by records classification at quadruple the rate of a decade ago. Then there is the designation of massive amounts of information as “sensitive but unclassified,” putting it beyond the reach of the public, scholars, public-interest groups, the press, even members of Congress and their staffs.

Such secrecy has a dramatic impact on democratic discourse, citizens’ participation in their own governance and the battering that truth takes in crucial debates about public policy.

One truth that can’t be ignored in Congress or elsewhere is that the federal government, once criticized for being a culture of secrecy, is now becoming something more like a cult of secrecy.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: pmcmasters@fac.org.

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