We’ve been following the progress of a couple of bills making their way through Congress. H.R. 1309 puts a little more teeth in our Freedom of Information Act–the main lever that the press and the public has for prying documents out of the executive branch (and see here for useful FOIA tips maintained by Investigative Reporters & Editors), while S. 223 would, for the first time, require campaign committees of Senate candidates to file their contribution and expenditure information electronically with the Federal Election Commission rather than sending in stacks of paper (both House and Presidential candidates file electronically).
There are other measures that are worth noting as well (with votes on all scheduled in the House for today and tomorrow). For me, the most interesting is H.R. 1254, which would force presidential library foundations to make their donor lists public. It is unseemly enough to have a foundation seeking millions of dollars from donors–corporate and individual, U.S. and foreign–to build what is essentially a monument to a former president; that they can do so anonymously, while that president is still in office, is a recipe for corruption (The name Marc Rich immediatley springs to mind for some reason…)
H.R. 1255 establishes procedures for releasing presidential records, and overturning the 2001 executive order from President George W. Bush that sharply restricted (and in many cases out-and-out eliminated) public access to these government documents. I’d actually like to see a government records act that goes a little further–former government officials generally have not only much better but also lengthy periods of exclusive access to their records. In 1992, Steve Weinberg wrote a book (along with my old shop, the Center for Public Integrity, called For Their Eyes Only: How Presidential Appointees Treat Public Documents As Personal Property that documented the ways in which presidential appointees “take classified documents with them after leaving public service, use the materials to write lucrative memoirs, and then seal off these documents for decades from historians, journalists, and other researchers.” It’s not just presidential papers to which the public needs better access.
H.R. 985 expands whistleblower protections–protecting agency employees who report waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities and other malfeasance to members of Congress or Inspectors General from administration retribution.
Finally, H.R. 1362 addresses shortcomings in the government’s relationships with private contractors. Rep. Henry Waxman, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, has a summary of the bill’s provisions here. Just a quick observation on this–I’d like to have seen a provision that would try to determine why, for so many contracts for which there is open bidding, only one bidder shows up (which seems to me to be almost as bad as no-bid contracts, and as much of a problem). In 2005, the last year for which we have complete data, ten percent of contracts–worth nearly $40 billion–were awarded under that scenario, according to our friends at FedSpending.org.
All these bills would add to our ability to know what government is up to and keep it accountable–not a bad couple of day’s work for the House if they pass them…