WHEN A spokesman for the administration urges that the Freedom of Information Act he amended to extend its coverage rather than to restrict access to government files, that's news. When it happened last week at Orrin Hatch's Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on possible changes in the FOIA, the proposal injected a moment of unexpected drama into proceedings characterized mainly, up to then, by the familiar back-and-forth arguments of the act's partisans and detractors.
The Justice Department, which has yet to submit its detailed proposals for amending the statute, dispatched an assistant attorney general to present the familiar chronicle of complaints about the FOIA's impact on law enforcement, intelligence and business regulatory agencies, as well as the measure's considerable administrative cost. In a socko ending, the official suggested that "Congress may wish to reconsider its own complete exclusion from the act." Congress' concern for "openness," of course, has traditionally extended largely to executive-branch records. Its own committee papers remain sealed to researchers under a baleful 50-year exclusion monitored by the clerks of the House and Senate.
Upon learning of the administration's proposal, Rep. Glenn English, chairman of a House subcommittee also holding FOIA oversight hearings last week, countered by defending his branch of government as the most open in town. Still, he expressed a willingness to review the present exemption of congressional files from the act as soon as the administration submitted a proposal removing the exemption now applicable to records of the office of the president. And so it goes in the great freedom-of-looking-at-the-other-fellow's-information game.
But what about the suggestion that Congress reassess its own self-imposed exclusion from the Freedom of Information Act? If that traumatic step seems like a Boston Marathon of policy change to the out-of-condition slow-steppers on the Hill, why not train for it by beginning with an easier move?For several years now, the Senate has enjoyed the expertise and advice of archivists in its meticulously bipartisan Historical Office, which, among other things, helps members to organize their personal papers for eventual use by researchers and publishes volumes of executive-session transcripts having historical interest. Not only journalists and scholars but also the senators themselves have profited from the existence of that office, which has helped to catalog and release previously closed Senate records. A measure establishing a House Historical Office modeled on the Senate version has been moving slowly through the lower chamber. Its prompt passage would represent one major step toward extending the principle of freedom of information into the sheltered workshops of the Capitol.