Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Bush budget confirms his plan to undercut Freedom of Information Act bill he signed

President Bush's budget proposal confirmed that his administration is trying to undercut the bill he signed to strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act, in particular a part of the bill that is most helpful to rural newspapers and broadcast stations.

Bush's budget would move the newly created position of FOIA ombudsman from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Justice Department, which opposed the bill. "Because the ombudsman would be the chief monitor of compliance with the new law, that move is akin to killing the critical function, some members of Congress and watchdog groups say," writes Elizabeth Williamson of The Washington Post.

In a letter to Bush today, 43 organizations that lobby for open government objected to the proposal, first revealed by U.S. Sen. Patruck Leahy (D-Vt.) on Jan, 23. The following day, National Newspaper Association lobbyist Tonda Rush wrote that the group, which represents mainly weekly newspapers, sought an independent ombudsman "because FOIA and its legal mechanisms are often too slow and costly for community newspapers." With an ombudsman, smaller news outlets could avoid paying lawyers to push their requests, which are often delayed far beyond the 20-day response period mandated by the law.

The article quoted NNA Government Relations Chair Liz Parker, co-publisher and executive editor for Recorder Community Newspapers in Stirling, N.J.: "We specifically endorsed housing it in an agency separate from the Justice Department because that agency acts as the government's lawyer. It can hardly be both an advocate for withholding information and an ombudsman for the public to enforce the law's strong mandate that records are presumed to be public." (Read more)

A White House spokesman told the Post that the administration strongly supports "the timely and fair resolution of FOIA requests" but that "only the Department of Justice, as the government's lead on FOIA issues and mediation in legal matters, is properly situated and empowered to mediate issues between requestors and the federal government." (Read more)

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