‘Sunshine Week’ highlights transparency

Democrats and Republicans have tangled over whether efforts to pass healthcare reform are benefiting from backdoor deals and questionable parliamentary maneuvering. 

On Tuesday, however, there was some indication of a growing bipartisan consensus for the need to increase government transparency and openness, as Sunshine Week dawned on Washington.

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Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill Tuesday that would put all publicly available government information online in a user-friendly format. 

In addition, Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, and Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from Illinois, are working to recruit members for a new “transparency caucus” that would push for greater openness. Issa is the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; Quigley is a member of the panel.

The moves for more transparency come during Sunshine Week, the annual checkup by government watchdog groups on how the federal government is complying with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

Open-records advocates had some things to celebrate in the past year, like the White House’s decision to post visitor records online.

But the Obama administration has also come under criticism for making slow responses to FOIA requests and for using an exemption that hides internal agency decisionmaking much more often than did the George W. Bush administration.

“While the Obama administration has made some progress in increasing government transparency, CREW’s experience indicates there is still a long way to go,” Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said in a statement. 

The White House released a statement from President Barack Obama on Tuesday to reaffirm his commitment to transparency and openness. 

The president noted the White House has released its visitor records, posted government data on several new websites and issued an executive order to fight “excessive secrecy.”

“We are proud of these accomplishments, but our work is not done,” Obama said in the statement.

The administration released a memo by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and White House Counsel Bob Bauer on Tuesday, asking federal agencies if they had devoted enough resources in responding to FOIA requests.

Israel’s bill appears to jibe with the administration’s goal of getting as much information as possible to the public. The New York Democrat said his legislation would take public information out of file cabinets and government warehouses, where it remains out of sight and available only by written request, and put it online.

“This bill would make government more accessible, more efficient and more transparent,” Israel said Tuesday. 

The bill instructs federal agencies to publish all their publicly available information online within three years of passage. The lead-time would allow the federal government to put the infrastructure in place to release and post the data.

The legislation says agencies should create a searchable catalog of all their public documents and establishes a panel to write information-sharing guidelines. The bill would also allow citizens to petition the government for more information, similar to the FOIA process.

Israel identified several types of data that would be released under the act, such as administration officials’ financial disclosure statements and official travel logs for trips paid by interests outside the government. 

The bill has been referred to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Israel said he is looking for more co-sponsors. 

The White House has a similar effort in place. Announced in December 2009, the Open Government Directive instructs federal agencies to post “high-value” information online in easy-to-use formats. In April of this year, agencies expected to release their plans on how to meet the president’s goal. 

Israel’s bill has the backing of dozens of watchdog groups and public interest organizations, such as OMB Watch, Public Citizen, CREW, the Sunlight Foundation and the Personal Democracy Forum. 

Along with Israel, other lawmakers have taken an interest in promoting transparency. For example, Issa and Quigley have joined forces and are recruiting members for a bipartisan “transparency caucus.”

The caucus is still in development, but an Issa aide said they hope to make an official announcement within the next two weeks. The group would concentrate on making government information, including committee investigations, more accessible to the public.