Would the New OPEN Government Act Really Open Anything?

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After the House on Tuesday passed the OPEN Government Act to bolster the Freedom of Information Act and sent the bill to George W. Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed,

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has a vital purpose: to inform American citizens about the conduct of their government. However, the Bush Administration has greatly expanded the veil of secrecy and undermined the Freedom of Information Act. The Administration’s actions run counter to the values of our democracy, the public’s right to know, and the ability of American citizens to hold their government accountable. The passage of the OPEN Government Act takes a first step toward strengthening FOIA and restoring transparency and accountability to our government.

FOIA has long been broken–even before Bush. It sometimes takes years–even a decade–to get a FOIA request fulfilled. And, of course, much information is often withheld. I’ve had the State Department respond to requests nine years after I’ve submitted them–and long after I had any need for the documents. And recently I asked the Department of Interior for records related to a contract covering computer services provided to Vice President Dick Cheney’s office by a company run by a fellow who paid more than $1 million in bribes to Republican Representative Duke Cunningham. (Don’t ask why the Interior Department was involved.) I was told the material would be withheld under one of FOIA’s many elastic exemptions. So will the new legislation make any real difference?

For an answer, I turned to Steven Aftergood, who produces Secrecy News. He says:

The new legislation makes several valuable procedural changes. It will increase pressure on agencies to answer FOIA requests in weeks rather than years. It will make it easier for requesters to track FOIA requests and to win fee waivers. It will strengthen the position of those requesters who litigate denials of their requests.

On the other hand, it does not alter agencies’ ability to withhold information, which is of course the heart of the process. Whatever was withheld from requesters previously can still be withheld. So even if the law is faithfully implemented, it could just mean speedier denials.

Well, at least I won’t have to wait so long to be turned down.

WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

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That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

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WHO DOESN’T LOVE A POSITIVE STORY—OR TWO?

“Great journalism really does make a difference in this world: it can even save kids.”

That’s what a civil rights lawyer wrote to Julia Lurie, the day after her major investigation into a psychiatric hospital chain that uses foster children as “cash cows” published, letting her know he was using her findings that same day in a hearing to keep a child out of one of the facilities we investigated.

That’s awesome. As is the fact that Julia, who spent a full year reporting this challenging story, promptly heard from a Senate committee that will use her work in their own investigation of Universal Health Services. There’s no doubt her revelations will continue to have a big impact in the months and years to come.

Like another story about Mother Jones’ real-world impact.

This one, a multiyear investigation, published in 2021, exposed conditions in sugar work camps in the Dominican Republic owned by Central Romana—the conglomerate behind brands like C&H and Domino, whose product ends up in our Hershey bars and other sweets. A year ago, the Biden administration banned sugar imports from Central Romana. And just recently, we learned of a previously undisclosed investigation from the Department of Homeland Security, looking into working conditions at Central Romana. How big of a deal is this?

“This could be the first time a corporation would be held criminally liable for forced labor in their own supply chains,” according to a retired special agent we talked to.

Wow.

And it is only because Mother Jones is funded primarily by donations from readers that we can mount ambitious, yearlong—or more—investigations like these two stories that are making waves.

About that: It’s unfathomably hard in the news business right now, and we came up about $28,000 short during our recent fall fundraising campaign. We simply have to make that up soon to avoid falling further behind than can be made up for, or needing to somehow trim $1 million from our budget, like happened last year.

If you can, please support the reporting you get from Mother Jones—that exists to make a difference, not a profit—with a donation of any amount today. We need more donations than normal to come in from this specific blurb to help close our funding gap before it gets any bigger.

payment methods

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