Policy and News Updates for February 21, 2007

Policy Updates

[new] House bills support whistleblowers, executive branch reform
On Tuesday, February 13, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on two pieces of proposed legislation: The Executive Branch Reform Act of 2007 (H.R. 984) and The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2007 (H.R. 985). The next day, the committee marked up and approved the two bills. Lead sponsors of the bills are Committee Chairman Henry Waxman [D-CA] and Ranking Member Tom Davis [R-VA].

The Executive Branch Reform Act includes several provisions in support of open government. The bill would end secret meetings between lobbyists and executive branch officials; stop the revolving door between government officials, lobbyists, and contractors; begin a process for ending the use of "pseudo-classifications" (such as "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only"); and ban the use of covert propaganda by requiring the federal government to disclose its role in funding or disseminating messages to the American public.

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 2007 would expand whistleblower protections to all federal employees, including national security whistleblowers and federally-funded contractors. It restores the mandate of the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), which has been gutted by judicial activism since 1994. At the mark-up, the Committee unanimously approved two amendments that further strengthen the legislation. The first ends the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals monopoly jurisdiction on judicial review of the whistleblower statute. This may be the most significant structural reform in the legislation. The Federal Circuit repeatedly has issued decisions that defy the law’s clear intent to protect whistleblowers for “any” lawful disclosure of misconduct. The Committee also approved an amendment allowing whistleblowers to seek compensatory damages when challenging retaliation. Compensatory damages are available to complainants in nearly every other civil litigation context.

OpenTheGovernment.org is a member of the Make it Safe Coalition, a non-partisan network of organizations united in the cause of protecting government whistleblowers. The Oversight Committee’s legislation meets nearly every requirement for reform endorsed by the Make it Safe Coalition.
Other Sources: Hearing documents [Committee on Oversight and Government Reform]; H.R. 984 [Thomas]; H.R. 985 [Thomas]; Whistleblower, ethics measures advance in House [GovExec.com 2.15.07]

[new] FOIA in the new Congress
On Wednesday, February 14, the Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), titled The State of FOIA: Assessing Agency Efforts to Meet FOIA Requirements. The hearing was the first held by Chairman Clay (D-MO), and is a good indication that this Congress is serious about FOIA reform. Witnesses on the first panel included representatives from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Justice. On the second panel were representatives from McClatchy Newspapers (on behalf of the Sunshine in Government Initiative), the American Civil Liberties Union, and National Security Archive at George Washington University (an OpenTheGovernment.org coalition partner). Legislation to reform FOIA is expected to be introduced during Sunshine Week, March 11-17, 2007.

On February 15, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government (CJOG) released a new report titled "The Waiting Game: FOIA Performance Hits New Lows" [PDF]. The report highlights the increased backlog, cost, and waiting time for FOIA requests. Pete Weitzel, Coordinator of CJOG, says "The latest reports suggest President Bush’s 2005 executive order hasn’t affected performance. That makes the need for legislative reform urgent."
Other Sources: Hearing documents [Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Minority Office]; FOIA in the News: Headlines made possible by FOIA, 2003-present [PDF] [Compiled by the National Security Archive]; House hearing tackles FOIA reform [Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press]; New FOIA reform legislation expected soon [GovExec.com 2.15.07]

[new] State of Washington advances transparency
A new bill introduced in the Washington State legislature, SB 5420 [PDF], could set an excellent example for transparency in government. The bill requires the posting of the agenda of each regular meeting 72 hours before that meeting and 24 hours before any special meeting of the governing body of every public agency, special purpose district and any municipality that owns or maintains a website. The minutes of each of these meetings, whether in draft or final form, must also be posted within 15 days on the website. The bill excludes counties with populations less than 20,000, cities with populations less than 8,000, and school districts with populations of less than 1,000. If it passes, the act would take effect on July 1, 2008. Thanks to Marcus Hochstetler, Law Librarian and Director of King County Law Library, for this information.

On the national level, ReadtheBill.org (a coalition partner of OpenTheGovernment.org) is working on an issue campaign to persuade the U.S. Congress to establish the "72 Online" rule to post legislation and conference reports online for 72 hours before floor consideration in Congress.
Other Sources: Washington State legislature; Summary of SB 5420 [PDF]

News from Coalition Partners and Others

Join in Sunshine Week activities!
Sunshine Week 2007 is quickly approaching! Join us this year on March 12, 2007 for a webcast discussion called "Closed Doors; Open Democracies?". Ira Flatow of NPR’s Talk Of The Nation: Science Friday will moderate two panels of distinguished speakers who will discuss government suppression of scientific information and the importance of access to information. The program will end with ideas for action.

Civic organizations, libraries, universities and other groups around the country are invited to participate in our second dialogue on open government and secrecy by hosting or co-sponsoring programs. To learn more about becoming a host site or co-sponsor or to find out if there will be a site near you, visit our website: www.openthegovernment.org. Learn more about Sunshine Week on the official Sunshine Week website.

Oppose an Official Secrets Act!
Keep an eye on our website and your email for a sign on letter for organizations to oppose an Official Secrets Act! More info to come.

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