5 Issues Congress Should Seriously Consider

As the public begins to decide who should represent them in the halls of Congress during the next session, we thought it would be a good time to begin thinking about what issues the 113th Congress should address to make the federal government more open and accountable. Read more for our list:

  1. Get serious about overclassification. Experts from the national security field estimate that from 50 to 90 percent of documents are overclassified. When information is needlessly protected, or subject to tighter controls than it needs to be, precious taxpayer resources are wasted and the public begins to question the integrity of the system—making potentially dangerous leaks all the more likely. The 111th Congress passed a bill that requires the Department of Homeland Security to take some important steps like creating disincentives for employees to overclassify, and improving training. In addition to extending similar requirements to all agencies with classification authority, Congress can and should do more. We hope the 113th starts by adding the Brennan Center’s report “Reducing Overclassification through Accountability” to their winter reading list, and that they hold public hearings to begin to develop legislation that helps restore confidence in the classification system.
     
  2. Update the Federal and Presidential Records Acts. Technology and work practices have changed dramatically since the Federal Records Act (FRA) and the Presidential Records Act (PRA) were signed into law in 1950 and 1978, respectively. The PRA provide a process for turning over presidential records to public ownership and access, but has never been updated.  On the FRA, reports from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and others show that we cannot be certain federal agencies are properly preserving or managing electronic records. When agencies cannot find records—because they have been improperly deleted or simply misplaced—they cannot answer requests for information from the public or Congressional overseers. As a result, we all lose the opportunity to understand the development of policies and hold officials accountable. The 113th Congress should consider how these laws need to be updated.
     
  3. Pass a Strong Whistleblower Protection Expansion Act. Whistleblowers should not be punished for exposing waste, fraud, abuse, and illegality in the government. Failing to provide safe channels for public servants to report wrong-doing internally makes it more likely that potentially sensitive information will be leaked to the press. We recently joined with the Make It Safe Coalition to urge Congress to pass the strongest version WPEA. If the 112th Congress fails to pass a bill, the 113th Congress should act quickly to pass the bill.
     
  4. Free CRS Reports! The Congressional Research Service is taxpayer-funded, and an invaluable resource to historians, students, and researchers alike. Individual members of Congress often release what they view as important reports, but the public deserves simple, unencumbered access to the research they fund. Several proposals to open CRS reports to the public have been introduced during past sessions of Congress (the latest proposal by Representatives Leonard Lance and Mike Quigley was introduced in July). If the 112th Congress fails to pass a bill, the 113th Congress should take this common-sense step.
     
  5. The Senate Judiciary and House Oversight and Government Reform Committees should take active roles in evaluating any proposed exemptions or expansions to exemptions under FOIA. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of the strongest tools the public has to access information about its government. New and expanded exemptions to FOIA are often created by the inclusion of just a couple of lines into any bill that is signed into law by the President. These tiny provisions are often in massive spending or authorizations bills that are seen as "must pass" pieces of legislation. Because the provision does not amend FOIA directly (in fact, until recently the provision did not have to even reference FOIA), it is rarely referred to Committees with expertise in public access to government information. Any legislation that could alter the public’s ability to access records under FOIA should be thoroughly evaluated by experts well versed in the public’s right to know.

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