In part because of the Bush administration’s excessive secrecy, Congress was moved to pass the Open Government Act of 2007, which the president reluctantly signed on the last day of the year.
It didn’t take him long to try to gut the act — just this past Monday, in fact.
The law’s mechanism for promoting open government is an Office of Government Information Services in the National Archives, the final repository of all government records.
The office would monitor federal agencies’ compliance with the principal open-records law, the much-abused Freedom of Information Act, and act as an ombudsman by helping citizens appeal adverse FOIA rulings, saving them the time-consuming and expensive process of going to court.
A single paragraph buried deep within the massive federal budget President Bush sent to Congress on Monday calls for abolishing that office and transferring its functions to the Justice Department, hardly the most open and forthcoming of agencies.
Early in the Bush administration, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instructed federal agencies to err on the side of secrecy in considering FOIA requests. No doubt in considering the president’s plan to move the office into Justice, Congress will recall the trouble it had — and still has — in extracting information from that department about the fired U.S. attorneys. Moreover, Justice represents the agencies in disputes over the release of records.
Perhaps Bush had other reasons for wanting to abolish the office, but a good guess is that the Justice Department would be more politically responsive to the White House than the professional record keepers in the independent, nonpartisan Archives.
The authors of the Open Government Act have pledged to block the move, and they should do it if for no other reason than to give the law a fair chance to show it works.