Death By Budget

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Rebecca Carr of Cox Newspapers reports on President Bush’s efforts to gut the Open Government Act of 2007 Congress passed last year and he signed into law on Dec. 31 via death by budgeting. In the 2009 budget submitted yesterday (as we wrote last week), Bush eliminates the key provision of the law — the ombudsman whose job it is to oversee all Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) disputes, by moving it from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Department of Justice. The ombudsman office was added to provide independent oversight and settle disputes over FOIA requests. The law authorized funds to address backlogs in the requests and resolve them in a timely manner.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI), a group of journalist organizations promoting ‘open government" policies, has written Congress pointing out the inherent conflict of interest that would exist if the Justice Department were to perform the responsibilities of the ombudsman. Justice is "hostile to efforts to improve FOIA responsiveness, in part because it represents agencies sued by FOIA requesters," Think Progress wrote last week. SGI’s letter calls on Congress to fully fund the ombudsman’s office within the National Archives. "This reflects the plain language of the statute and intent of Congress," SGI’s letter states. "The money should follow the law." As Rick Blum, SGI coordinator, said, "For the first time, Congress created an independent ombudsman in the federal government to help the public…Why quit the experiment after only 35 days?" Sens. Patrick Leahy and John Cornyn co-authored the legislation, and have both vowed to restore the original funding.

Daniel Metcalfe ran the Justice Department’s Office on Information and Privacy before departing to run the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University’s Law School. Cox quotes Metcalfe as saying the administration is attempting to avoid complying with this FOIA amendment by proposing its alteration through an appropriations process that will drag on through the year. By flouting the law Bush is setting a terrible example for FOIA implementation, he said. "Congress should see through this and not tolerate it."

Amen to that.

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