WASHINGTON — Open-government bills sped to House passage Wednesday as Democrats pushed to make President Bush and his executive branch more forthcoming about their actions. The White House struck back with veto threats.
Aided by substantial Republican support, the Democrats approved legislation to force government agencies to be more responsive to the millions of Freedom of Information Act requests for public documents they receive every year.
The House also easily passed bills to require donors to presidential libraries to identify themselves _ an issue as Bush prepares for his own library _ and to reverse a 2001 Bush decision making it easier for presidents to keep their records from public scrutiny.
Finally, lawmakers approved a bill to strengthen protection for government whistle-blowers. They cited the failure to expose faulty intelligence about prewar Iraq in expanding protections for national security officials. Employees of federal contractors, airport screeners and government scientists facing retaliation for objecting to political influences are also covered.
Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, voted in favor of all four bills. “One of my first votes as a newly elected member of Congress was in favor of an aggressive ethics package,” he said in a press release Wednesday. “And today, I followed that up by casting votes that will continue to restore accountability, accessibility and openness in government.”
Prospects are good for the FOIA bill in the Senate, where it has bipartisan support. The other bills also need Senate action before they can go to the president.
The White House, citing the Bush’s constitutional prerogatives, warned that the presidential records bill would be vetoed if it reached his desk.
The White House issued a second veto warning on the whistle-blower bill, saying it was unconstitutional and compromised national security.
The votes were 390-34 on the presidential library bill; 333-93 on the presidential records bill; 308-117 on the FOIA legislation and 331-94 on the whistle-blower bill.
All four are part of the media-led Sunshine Week. Democrats are using the annual event to highlight what they say is a disturbing level of secrecy in the Bush administration.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, heard testimony on a parallel FOIA bill. Introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, it would improve administration of the law and penalize agencies that fail to comply in a timely fashion.
Media representatives said seven agencies have gone more than a decade without responding to some requests for information under the law. They endorsed the bill’s penalties, its provisions to let people track the progress of their requests and its plan to repay attorney fees in successful suits for records that were denied.
Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The Associated Press and a member of the media Sunshine in Government Initiative, said AP’s legal battles to get information about suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had cost “well into six figures,” but the Pentagon proposed to reimburse only $11,000. Under current law, he said, “We’ll have to sue again to get a higher, fairer number.”
The House bill goes a step further than the Senate version in restoring a “presumption of disclosure” standard. That would oblige agencies to release requested information unless there is a finding that such a disclosure could do harm.
The requirement would overturn a memo by former Attorney General John Ashcroft after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, advising against the release of information when there was uncertainty over security or law enforcement exemptions.
The White House said in a statement it strongly opposed the House provision, contending it would upset the balance between the public’s right to know and the need to safeguard certain information.
The statement said the administration opposed the bill because it was “premature and counterproductive” to legislate new requirements on federal agencies before they have a chance to put in place changes the president previously outlined.
The 40-year-old FOIA law was a promise that people could find out what their government was doing “in all but a few kinds of highly sensitive or confidential matters,” Curley said. “The law does back them. But in many cases the government doesn’t back the law.”
Democrats claimed that situation has worsened under this administration.
“For the past six years, we have had an administration that has tried to operate in secrecy, without transparency, without the public having knowledge about their action,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “Well, this week, Congress is finally pushing back.”
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington legislative office, said the FOIA bill was needed because “this has been the most secretive administration since the Nixon years. ... It is too easy for the government to defy requests for information it is obligated to turn over.”
The presidential records measure would rescind Bush’s 2001 executive order giving current and former presidents and vice presidents authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely.
The act was passed after Watergate “to underscore the fact that presidential records belong to the American people, not to the president,” Waxman said. The presidential directive, he said, “undermines the entire purpose” of the act.
Sunshine Week, March 11-17, is a 3-year-old national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It is intended to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others.
Associated Press writer Michael J. Sniffen contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Information on the House bills _ H.R. 1309 (FOIA); H.R. 1254 (libraries); H.R. 1255 (presidential records); and H.R. 985 (whistle-blowers): http://tinyurl.com/2tx5g4
Information on the Senate bill, S. 849, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov