House Democrats hope to breathe new life into open-government legislation, marking Sunshine Week with votes to protect whistle-blowers, smooth freedom of information requests and compel presidential libraries to disclose more about their donors. Efforts to shield reporters from revealing their sources are not faring so well.
The House is to vote on as many as five bills coinciding with this week’s annual campaign by open-government advocates to draw attention to a need for accessibility and accountability in the fight against abuse and waste.
“Open government is a nonpartisan issue,” said Rick Blum, spokesman for the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups.
But very little is nonpartisan in Washington.
Majority Democrats want to use the five bills to highlight what they say is the Bush administration’s use of executive power and secrecy, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press and being circulated among lawmakers. They argue that Republicans running Congress during Bush’s first six years conducted almost no oversight as the administration went to war.
Shabby conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, secret national security letters for gaining access to people’s financial records and a warrantless wiretapping program all point to White House misuse of executive power and secrecy in the war against terrorism, Democrats contend.
The bills all are sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They would:
— Reverse a Bush administration directive by restoring the presumption that agencies should release records to the public when allowed by law and when they cannot reasonably foresee that the disclosure would cause harm.
— Require government agencies to disclose the reasons for awarding no-bid contracts.
— Provide whistle-blower protection to workers who regularly handle classified information, including private contractors and scientists.
— Require organizations established for the purpose of raising funds for presidential libraries to disclose the sources of contributions of $200 or more.
— Make it harder for current and former presidents to withhold presidential records.
In the slower-moving Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont is convening a hearing Wednesday on legislation to smooth the freedom of information process. The same bill never made it to a vote in either the House or Senate in the last Congress.
Not receiving a vote this week — or for the foreseeable future — will be legislation that would shield reporters from being forced by prosecutors to reveal their sources or face jail. Advocates say whistle-blowers are less likely to expose abuse if reporters can be compelled to reveal their sources.
The issue has been much in the news.
“I suppose you can make an argument that the entire Judith Miller-Valerie Plame matter did not advance this cause very much,” said Otis L. Sanford, chairman of the First Amendment Committee for the Associated Press Managing Editors Association. “However, in my view it would be wrong to push for, or reject, valid legislation based on one incident.”
Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., a chief sponsor of a bill to provide such a shield, said he does not list “the Judith Miller case” when he advocates for the legislation.
“That in and of itself would not be a good example,” Boucher says. “For my purposes it was not persuasive of the needs for a statute.”
Miller, at the time a reporter for The New York Times, served 85 days in jail rather than testify before a grand jury in the CIA leak case, then did testify after being released from a pledge of anonymity by her source.
Said Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who is sponsoring several bills to modify the Freedom of Information Act:
“Some would think, for example, that the conduct of reporters raises questions as to what sort of people they are and how are they conducting themselves,” Lugar said. “I understand all that. But the ideal that we’re seeking hasn’t really changed.”
It’s unclear whether Bush would sign any of the legislation into law during his last two years in office.
In several hearings last year, Justice Department officials argued that national security interests should trump freedom of information concerns if disclosure of information would make the country less safe.
Bush, who in 2005 acknowledged a “suspicion” that his administration was too security-conscious, issued an executive order that year designed to speed the government’s response time to freedom-of-information requests. The order designated a chief FOIA officer, a FOIA requester service center and public liaisons to receive complaints from requesters.