House Passes Open-Government Bills

By Elizabeth Williamson and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 15, 2007

In a bipartisan confrontation with the White House over executive branch secrecy, the House ignored a stern veto threat and overwhelmingly passed a package of open-government bills yesterday that would roll back administration efforts to shield its workings from public view.

Even top Republicans supported three bills that would streamline access to records in presidential libraries, expand safeguards for government whistle-blowers, and strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which guides public requests for government documents. All were approved with veto-proof majorities.

The White House issued tough statements on all three bills, saying, for example, that the presidential records act was "misguided, and would improperly impinge on the President's constitutional authority, in violation of settled separation of powers principles."

The showdown was the latest in a series of efforts by Congress to force accountability from an administration that has been unresponsive to questions from lawmakers and the public about its decision-making. Introduced for government "Sunshine Week," an effort by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and other open-government groups to protest what they consider excessive government secrecy, the bills took on added heat as lawmakers called the White House to account for its role in the firings of U.S. attorneys and the FBI's mishandling of national security letters.

"If [Bush] does veto this, we would have a disagreement," said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). "I feel on this issue there should be openness."

Republicans on the House floor offered only tepid opposition to the measures, led by Rep. Michael R. Turner (Ohio), a relatively junior Republican. Turner said he wished that the presidential libraries measure would apply only to former presidents, not sitting ones. He complained that the Freedom of Information bill had been changed between the time it was approved by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the time it reached the House floor in the same kind of "backroom" deal-making Democrats are decrying.

But it soon emerged that those changes were made only to ensure that the measure would not cost taxpayers any money, a change Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the House Budget Committee's ranking Republican, grudgingly acknowledged. None of the handful of Republicans who did speak against the bill mentioned the White House's veto threats.

The White House reaction surprised even some of the bill's sponsors. The White House "was trying to get members to take a closer look, and I think that's a good thing," said Rep. Todd R. Platts (R-Pa.), who co-sponsored the measures. "We're glad to have this issue more closely scrutinized. . . . Anything that results in members looking at more specifics, I think, is good government."

The last bill to pass late yesterday was the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which would for the first time extend whistle-blower protection to government scientists.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings yesterday on the Senate version of the bill to amend the FOIA, co-sponsored by committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

"Ultimately what I'm hoping is that we can begin to change some of the culture here in Washington when it comes to open government and recognize that documents held by government officials are presumptively open records," Cornyn said this week. "I can't think of anything more important than more transparency and more openness in the operation of government.

"Information shouldn't be squirreled away and hidden."

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