Cornyn says he wants to strengthen FOIA law
Sen. Cornyn nobly brings open records ideals to
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
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
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
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
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.