From Society of Environmental Journalists: WatchDog TipSheet item

Publication date: Nov. 3, 2006


The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on Sept. 21 that would greatly strengthen government openness – but one sponsor suspects it is being blocked by a parliamentary device called a “secret hold.”

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a 40-year old law that gives citizens a right to get copies of government records unless the records are exempted for good reason. FOIA is essential to government accountability – but it is all too easy for government to delay or deny the information citizens and journalists ask for.

That’s why Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) drew up the bill (S 394 – known as the OPEN Government Act): to give federal agencies a strong push to quit stalling and hand over records when required by law. Background.

So far, not a single senator has spoken against the bill, but it has still not been taken up on the Senate floor. Sen. Leahy told a plenary session at SEJ’s annual conference in Burlington, VT, Oct. 28 that he suspects this is because at least one “secret hold” had been placed on it by an unknown senator or senators – reportedly at the request of the Bush administration. The hold is a parliamentary device that allows a single senator to block consideration of a bill without being identified to the public.

“The Bush-Cheney administration simply put a hold on it so that it won’t go through,” Leahy said.

The WatchDog wants to help the public learn which senators put secret holds on the Cornyn-Leahy FOIA bill, S 394. So we are organizing a similar collaborative reporting project to smoke them out. We have established a Web site to collect, compile, and coordinate the information – and are urging journalists (environmental or other), bloggers, and citizens to get on the horn and start calling their senators to ask.

How You Can Help Find the Hold

Call your senators offices and ask whether the senator placed a hold on S 394. And then ask whether the senator will vote to bring the bill up for floor consideration and a vote. Ask regardless of whether your senator is a Democrat or a Republican

The best place to call is the senator’s Washington, DC, office, which can be reached through the Senate switchboard, at (202) 225-3121. Ask the receptionist to put you through to the senator’s legislative director or press secretary (if you are press).

Before you call, point your Web browser here, and check to see whether somebody has already gotten an answer (no need to ask twice). You will also find phone numbers of individual senators’ offices there. If you get an answer, share it with us by emailing. Please give us your name, phone, and e-mail so we can check our info – we will not share this on the Web.

Collaborative Research Overcomes Secrecy

Critics who think secret holds are undemocratic outed two senators in August who had put holds on another bill, which created a searchable online database of federal grants and contracts. That bill, S 2590, became law Sept. 26, 2006.

The secrecy was broken by a collection of bloggers and citizen journalists who simply called their senators, in all 50 states, asking if they were the ones who had placed the holds. By process of elimination, they quickly narrowed the suspects down to Sens. Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Robert Byrd (D-WV). When asked directly, the two quickly confessed and lifted their holds. It was a unique victory for citizen journalism – which had accomplished something that the national media couldn’t or wouldn’t.