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Comment on Information Access--Surveying the Current Legal Landscape of Federal Right-to-Know Laws

August 2009

Citation: 39 ELR 10786

Issue: 8

Author: Gary D. Bass & Sean Moulton

Openness is an American bedrock principle, with secrecy being disdained except where absolutely necessary. As former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said, "Secrecy is for losers." If information is the lifeblood of democracy, then public access to information would be the arteries that keep democracy healthy. Yet, despite the clear importance of transparency to an effective and accountable government, we continue to fall short of the openness we need and have often been promised. David Vladeck's article, Information Access--Surveying the Current Legal Landscape of Federal Right-to-Know Laws, lays out a clear case for how and why our federal efforts to establish the public's right to information, especially environmental information, have not yet succeeded and what next steps would be most helpful in correcting that failure.

We as a nation have made repeated attempts to make our government open and accountable to the people. And while progress has been made, in some areas more progress than others, we continue to struggle with the responsibilities of our often longstanding right-to-know laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Vladeck appropriately spreads the blame for these shortcomings across all three branches of government. Congress' right-to-know laws have become outdated and fail to keep pace with the reality of what can and should be accomplished in the Internet age. Executive agencies, fearing criticism and oversight of their actions, continue to be resistant to transparency, causing excessive delays and often requiring those seeking information to go the expensive route of hiring a lawyer and going to court. And the courts have often, though not always, acted with excessive deference to the federal government.

Gary D. Bass is the Founder and Executive Director of OMB Watch. Sean Moulton is the Director of Federal Information Policy at OMB Watch.

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