Recently The Post published a commentary by Bevis Longstreth, a member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, entitled, "A Little Shade, Please" (op-ed, July 25). In the middle of a Washington summer this sentiment struck a responsive chord--until I went on to read that the relief sought is from the Government in the Sunshine Act. The commissioner maintains that the act impairs the ability of federal agencies to fulfill their responsibilities and does not provide the public with useful information.
As the author of that statute, I am not surprised at this latest attempt to argue that public scrutiny inhibits effective decision-making by government agencies. All through the congressional process leading to enactment of the Government in the Sunshine Act, the agencies to be covered raised similar arguments. "Openness in government is a commendable idea, senator, but surely you can't expect us to function with the public and press looking on. It simply isn't practical." Having come from Florida, where a comprehensive sunshine statute has worked well, I didn't buy the argument then, and after six years experience with the federal statute I don't buy it now.
The purpose of the sunshine law is simple and basic. In passing the legislation (94-0 in the Senate; 384-0 in the House) Congress overwhestated that the people have a perfect right to observe the conduct of public business. With a few exceptions--national defense information, plans for criminal prosecutions or material that would constitute an invasion of privacy--there is no se reason why citizens shouldn't be able to watch how government spends their money and reaches decisions affecting their businesses, their communities and their future. Citizens cannot hold government officials accountable if they don't know what those officials are doing.
As the Longstreth article indicates, the requirements of the sushine statute continue to be a bone of contention with some regulatory agency members. In 1981, it was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that went to court in an effort to avoid opening its budget meetings to the public. The court ruled in favor of le these complaints have and most likely will continue to arise, there is no real evidence that the law interferations of any agency. At times I am sure it proves inconvenient, but that is a small price when weighed agaito know.
Former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission Michael Pertschuk, in describing the FTC experienc, "Openness in government produces better policy- making and more effectiveness accountability, and we therefore encourage as much public scrutiny of FTC activities as is feasible."
The difficultie are raised as a basis for criticizing the act, such as a loss of spontaneity or a restraint of frank conversant. Congress, in enacting legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and the Government in the Sunshinserve the interest of federal agencies but rather the interest of the public. If one were to use a standard ofes' needs best, I am sure a good argument can be made to minimize public access and involvement.
The sunshike of the Watergate scandal, was part of an effort by Congress to remove the cloak of secrecy and reassert the tradition of democracy that government operate in the public. We sought through long hearings and negotiations to ensure that an agency's functioning would not be impaired, and I think we were successful. Frankly, we were not as concerned with the reluctance of an individual commissioner to speak his mind in public.
I think it is worth noting that sunshine represents one area of law in which Congress has not asked more than what it is willing to do itself. By House and Senate rule, committee meetings are open except those discussing national security information or other legitimately confidential information. Of course, there were dire predictions about the effect of these congressional rules on the deliberative process, but they have proven unfounded. It was a little awkward at first for members to speak their minds in the presence of the public and press, but it wasn't long before discussion was as frank as ever.
While my primary objection is with the failure to understand the point of open government, I also want to clarify several specific issues raised by the commissioner.
Longstreth finds fault in the fact that Cabinet agencies or single-headed agencies are not subject to the act. The rationale for covering only multi- headed agencies was grounded in common sense and the nature of collegial agencies. Multi-headed agencies operate on the principle of give-and-take discussion between the members. There is a tradition of public dissent. While the agency takes a final action, it does not necessarily speak with one voice. Its deliberative process can and should be exposed to public scrutiny. The interior workings of a Cabinet secretary's decision-making process, on the other hand, may well be of great interest but are simply not accessible to public observation.
I would take issue as well with the notion that sunshine legislation aims in some way to mitigate what Longstreth calls "untoward interference." I did not push to open government meetings in order to expose corruption or conspiracy. I wanted to open the doors to educate the public or at least make sure the opportunity was available for that educational process.
I happen to think that most members of Congress and most agency members are committed to the public good and do their best to achieveethat good. I want the public to be able to see that government does work and is usually working for them. My goal was and is to help redress the crisis in confidence, the crisis of people's lack of trust in their government. Excessive secrecy breeds rumors, suspicion and distrust. It insulates those who govern and alienates those who are affected by government decision-making.
Certainly no law is perfect, and perhaps there are areas in which the Sunshine Act can be improved. However, a critique that argues for a "modicum of darkness" aims at the heart of the law. To those who find open government inhibiting, I would remind them of President Truman's maxim about getting out of the kitchen.