Bill Would End FOIA Shield for Smithsonian
Saturday, July 19, 2008
A longtime critic of the Smithsonian Institution introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate this week that would wipe out the national museum complex's exemption from the Freedom of Information Act and the Sunshine Act.
The legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Finance Committee, and Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, would require the Smithsonian to hold meetings in public and make records available to the public upon request.
The Smithsonian, created by Congress as a federal trust, was exempted from FOIA in two rulings in the mid-1990s. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit decided FOIA would apply to the Smithsonian only if Congress changed the law to say so explicitly.
Grassley said the legislation marks a major test for the Smithsonian's pledge of transparency and the newly installed secretary, G. Wayne Clough, former president of Georgia Tech. A spokeswoman declined to say what Clough thinks of the proposal.
"He comes at a critical juncture," Grassley said in a Senate floor speech. "Will the Smithsonian recover from a series of scandals and regain its sterling reputation? Or will it backslide into bad old habits that could lead to more scandals?"
Grassley noted that the 18 museums and nine research facilities receive 70 percent of their funding from congressional appropriations. "One of the best tools Congress can give him is a clear, definitive statement . . . that the Smithsonian's business is the people's business."
The Smithsonian's attorneys have opposed applying FOIA to the institution. Spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said, "The Smithsonian's governance reforms have resulted in greater transparency and accountability, and our FOIA policy is consistent with the approach taken by organizations that report to Congress such as the Library of Congress."
Roger W. Sant, chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that the Smithsonian would continue working with Congress on issues of openness, and noted, "We are confident that the Smithsonian has gone well beyond just FOIA in increasing transparency."
Senate staff members said Smithsonian officials quickly moved behind the scenes to oppose an attempt by Grassley to attach the legislation as an amendment to another bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). That bill would require Congress to make clear when it is adding exemptions to FOIA.
Grassley's bill put Leahy into a particularly difficult position because he is also on the Board of Regents, which oversees the institution, and some of those members are known to oppose applying FOIA to the Smithsonian.
Leahy spokesman David Carle said the senator has worked to change the culture of secrecy at the Smithsonian. "He took the lead in arranging for groups representing the FOIA community to get a high-level meeting with Smithsonian officials in recent months to find common ground on policy improvements," Carle said. "He's had his own run-ins with the culture."
Patrice McDermott, a public-records advocate who is the director of OpentheGovernment.org, has participated in those talks. She said Leahy has worked hard to make the Smithsonian more transparent but called the Smithsonian's FOIA policy "a mess" that contains many more exemptions than the federal law. "They want the public to think they are acting in accord with FOIA, but they are not," McDermott said.