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Seeking Public Input for More Government Accountability

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April 1, 2008

Sunshine Week is over, but Wired reports that the Sunlight Foundation just launched a new initiative to bring together all of the government transparency bills that have been proposed, but stalled one way or another in Congress, plus some new proposals, and ask for public comment on them. Sunlight is taking comments by putting the bill, called the Transparency in Government Act of 2008, on its site PublicMarkup.org. The act covers everything from faster responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, to access to Congressional Research Service reports, to improving Executive Branch Transparency.

As participants in the Sunshine Week campaign for open government, the ACLU encourages citizens to participate in this important exercise and give their comments on the PublicMarkup site. It’s an unusual opportunity for members of the public to give their direct input into legislation that’s pending in Congress.

Speaking of transparency in the Executive Branch, Public Citizen-the consumer advocacy nonprofit founded by Ralph Nader-established BushSecrecy.org to chronicle our current president’s efforts to keep the public in dark about his administration’s inner workings.

The site points out that government transparency laws were strengthened during the Clinton administration, but that all went to hell with a memo (PDF) sent by Bush’s then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in October 2001. In this memo, he begins by saying that the Bush White House and DOJ are committed to full compliance with the FOIA. But in practically the same breath, he assures any department that decides to withhold records that the DOJ will defend its decision. Public Citizen writes on BushSecrecy.org:

The Ashcroft memorandum…expressly encourages agencies to look for reasons to deny access to information, and to rely on FOIA’s exemptions from disclosure even when no harm would result from disclosure. And it assures the agencies that if they have even an arguable basis for withholding a document, the Justice Department will back them up in litigation.

There you have it, the beginning of the end of open government policies in the Bush administration. It was all downhill from there.

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