Open government can spur reform

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Guest editorial

When Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) nearly 40 years ago, he wasn’t exactly whooping for joy. In fact, former press secretary Bill Moyers has recalled, “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony.”

Why the reluctance? “He hated the thought of journalists rummaging in government closets,” Moyers explained, “hated them challenging the official view of reality.” Yet the stubborn rancher from Texas swallowed hard and uncapped his pen anyway — a gesture for which Americans should be grateful.

They ought to be especially so just about now. This week marks the second annual celebration of Sunshine Week — a venture spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the American Library Association and scores of other groups insistent that government must not keep citizens in the dark.

What can assure such openness? For four decades, the best bet has been the FOIA. The law has worked wonders to uncover government stealth, reveal misuse of tax dollars, track down undisclosed research findings, highlight public-health dangers and expose U.S. military misconduct.

And the FOIA has served another salutary purpose: It has reminded generations of government officials that they’re under public watch — thus keeping many from succumbing to unsavory temptation.

Indeed, that may be the FOIA’s greatest, and most unquantifiable, contribution to American society: Its very existence highlights how much Americans value open government, and has likely nudged many a wavering official away from stealth and toward scruple. The law’s necessity couldn’t be more evident. Every administration in the history of this republic has sought to cut corners and cover up bungles, verifying the acclaimed adage about power’s tendency to breed corruption. It’s an inclination only public scrutiny can hold in check.

The wise minds that devised America’s democracy knew this lesson well. That’s why they wrote a Constitution that enshrines citizens’ rights and freedoms — and greatly restrains the reach of government. That document — the one manuscript all Americans should hold sacred — insists time and again that this nation’s government must do its work publicly, remaining accountable to the people who shape it. Assuring accountability, time has shown, requires that citizens know just what the government is doing, and that virtually any question they ask about their government be answered, quickly and honestly.

Hence Sunshine Week’s celebration of the FOIA, which in 40 years has become the people’s sharpest tool for digging up details government officials might prefer to keep to themselves. Contrary to popular assumption, the instrument isn’t of value just to journalists, though reporters have often used the FOIA to enlightening effect. The law’s most common customers are ordinary citizens. In the last few years, more than 4 million FOIA requests have been filed annually, only a tiny share of which were launched by news outlets.

The numbers illuminate the point worth keeping in mind, and the ultimate reason for Sunshine Week: The right the FOIA was written to enforce doesn’t belong to journalists; it belongs to Americans, every one of whom is entitled, even obliged, to keep an eye on what the government is doing.

Unfortunately, the FOIA alone isn’t enough to ensure government transparency. What’s necessary as well is a cooperative attitude among potential secret-keepers who can serve best simply by assuming that any citizen question deserves a straight answer.

That presumption of openness, explicitly urged by the FOIA, has waxed and waned as presidents have come and gone. Since George W. Bush moved into the White House, onlookers say, the presumption has all but evaporated.

In October, 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft told federal agencies to stop leaning toward openness and instead to scrounge for legal reasons to deny FOIA requests. The upshot has been a marked rise in FOIA denials and a growing reputation for the Bush White House as one of the most secretive administrations in history.

Such fondness for secrecy isn’t good for anyone, least of all the secret-keepers. Once seduced by stealth, they too often use it to cut all sorts of corners and even to subvert the Constitution they’ve pledged to uphold. That’s why a venture like Sunshine Week is so crucial.

By highlighting the value of open government, the enterprise moves citizens to look hard at how their government is behaving. And as pretty much everyone knows, there’s nothing like the cold stare of a multitude to spur a government toward reform.