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Cornyn says he wants to strengthen FOIA law

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/12/23cornyn_edit.html EDITORIAL Sen. Cornyn nobly brings open records ideals to Washington EDITORIAL BOARD
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 23, 2004
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      http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/12/23cornyn_edit.html
      EDITORIAL
      Sen. Cornyn nobly brings open records ideals to
      Washington

      EDITORIAL BOARD

      Thursday, December 23, 2004

      Providing the public with information about the
      government is not a high priority with the Bush
      administration. In fact, public disclosure is
      generally discouraged.

      After the 2001 terror attacks, Attorney General John
      Ashcroft changed the presumption that the public has a
      right to information to an insistence that the
      government must consider national security and privacy
      before even thinking about releasing anything.

      That, said Cox Newspapers Washington Bureau Chief Andy
      Alexander, "turned the basic concept of open
      government on its head." Alexander is also chairman of
      the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Freedom of
      Information Committee.

      The American press and public have been frustrated by
      Washington's inertia on public information issues for
      so long that they have all but given up trying to
      improve the federal Freedom of Information Act.
      Congress, which exempted itself from the FOIA, has
      shown no interest in putting teeth in the law.

      In fact, the Senate committees responsible for FOIA
      oversight haven't had a hearing on the law in 12
      years. And as American-Statesman staff writer Chuck
      Lindell noted in an article earlier this month, some
      federal agencies routinely take up to three years to
      answer a request.

      But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who
      used to be this state's attorney general and before
      that a state supreme court justice, wants to change
      Washington's culture. He said he will introduce a bill
      early next year to make the federal law more like the
      Texas FOI laws.

      Cornyn said he wants the federal law to have stricter
      deadlines for answering requests for information, a
      third-party review of request denials and penalties
      for improperly denying government records.

      None of that exists now. On paper, there is a 30-day
      deadline for turning over government information, but
      it is widely ignored without penalty.

      The Texas Public Information Act and Open Meetings Act
      are strong laws that grant the people of Texas the
      right to information they pay for and that is
      maintained in their name. Cornyn is acutely aware of
      this.

      As strong as they are, the Texas open government laws
      are continually under assault by the Legislature,
      which tries to add new exceptions to them every
      session.

      Many elected officials and government employees oppose
      doing the public's business in the sunshine or giving
      people access to their records.

      Cornyn's effort to bring open government to Washington
      is laudable. It won't be easy.

      There are entrenched interests opposed to improving
      public access and bringing Congress under the law. But
      Cornyn isn't deterred so far, and his reason for
      changing the law is simple, correct and elegant.

      "My interest in it really goes back to basics � my
      philosophy of government," he said. "All legitimate
      government authority flows from the consent of the
      governed, and the governed can't consent if they don't
      know what's going on."

      Cornyn generally had that philosophy when he was
      attorney general and it's pleasing to see him bring
      his knowledge and understanding of the law and his
      commitment to the cause to Washington.

      He'll be challenging an administration that has
      embraced secrecy and challenged Cornyn's premise that
      government and its records belong to the people.

      But he's doing the right thing, and in the end that
      might be what matters most.
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