Open Government Bills Stir Veto Threats

The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 14, 2007; 6:31 PM

WASHINGTON -- Open-government bills sped to House passage Wednesday as Democrats pushed to make President Bush and his executive branch more forthcoming about their actions. The White House struck back with veto threats.

Aided by substantial Republican support, the Democrats approved legislation to force government agencies to be more responsive to the millions of Freedom of Information Act requests for public documents they receive every year.

The House also easily passed bills to require donors to presidential libraries to identify themselves _ an issue as Bush prepares for his own library _ and to reverse a 2001 Bush decision making it easier for presidents to keep their records from public scrutiny.

Finally, lawmakers approved a bill to strengthen protection for government whistle-blowers. They cited the failure to expose faulty intelligence about prewar Iraq in expanding protections for national security officials. Employees of federal contractors, airport screeners and government scientists facing retaliation for objecting to political influences are also covered.

Prospects are good for the FOIA bill in the Senate, where it has bipartisan support. The other bills also need Senate action before they can go to the president.

The White House, citing the Bush's constitutional prerogatives, warned that the presidential records bill would be vetoed if it reached his desk. The White House issued a second veto warning on the whistle-blower bill, saying it was unconstitutional and compromised national security.

The votes were 390-34 on the presidential library bill; 333-93 on the presidential records bill; 308-117 on the FOIA legislation and 331-94 on the whistle-blower bill.

All four are part of the media-led Sunshine Week. Democrats are using the annual event to highlight what they say is a disturbing level of secrecy in the Bush administration.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, heard testimony on a parallel FOIA bill. Introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, it would improve administration of the law and penalize agencies that fail to comply in a timely fashion.

Media representatives said seven agencies have gone more than a decade without responding to some requests for information under the law. They endorsed the bill's penalties, its provisions to let people track the progress of their requests and its plan to repay attorney fees in successful suits for records that were denied.

Tom Curley, president and chief executive of The Associated Press and a member of the media Sunshine in Government Initiative, said AP's legal battles to get information about suspected terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had cost "well into six figures," but the Pentagon proposed to reimburse only $11,000. Under current law, he said, "We'll have to sue again to get a higher, fairer number."

The House bill goes a step further than the Senate version in restoring a "presumption of disclosure" standard. That would oblige agencies to release requested information unless there is a finding that such a disclosure could do harm.

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