President Barack Obama promised to run the most open administration in history. His White House website still declares: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.”
But the agencies under the president have fallen far short of that pledge. Last year The Associated Press even reported that the Obama administration had set a “new record” for censoring documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or denying them altogether.
Federal inspectors general, who report on the efficiency and credibility of federal agencies to Congress, are an important additional way for the public to find out what government is up to. By law they are supposed to have unfettered access to all agency documents when performing an audit or pursuing a complaint.
Some of the agencies predictably balk at providing access to sensitive information, a practice that has already hampered a number of important IG investigations of abuses, including sexual assaults in the Peace Corps and Drug Enforcement Administration shootings.
And last year, in an especially dark day for government accountability, the Justice Department ruled that some federal information can be denied to the IGs.
The IGs, led by the inspector general for the Justice Department, immediately protested, correctly warning that the ruling flouted the clear language of the act that created their offices. The ruling also makes no sense because IG investigations routinely respect confidential information.
As one might expect in a conflict over the interpretation of a broadly supported law strengthening congressional oversight, the reaction on Capitol Hill was immediate. Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last year introduced bipartisan legislation to clarify and restore IG access to all pertinent documents in an investigation.
Yet this seemingly slam-dunk bill has gone nowhere.
As finally reported last month, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has been blocking it. He put a “hold” on the bill, and when asked about that move, merely hinted that he is acting for one or more members of the minority.
In the Senate, objections from one member, which do not have to be made public, are sometimes used to stop legislation from reaching a vote.
Sen. Reid, who fortunately for our nation isn’t seeking re-election this year, has fully earned his “Porker of the Year” award from Citizens Against Government Waste for his latest obstruction of open government.
It’s bad enough that Sen. Reid is stubbornly undermining the public’s right to know about the activities of — including the waste of taxpayer money by — federal agencies. But regardless of party affiliation, it’s a particularly bizarre stand for any federal lawmaker to derail legislation that would bolster Congress’ right to know through IG reports.
And in this election year, voters should demand to know where candidates for the presidency, Senate and House stand on access to federal agency records by the inspectors general — and the public.