The White House on Tuesday erased a government-transparency rule that required the president’s Office of Administration to make records available to the public, removing the regulation from the books nearly six years after it effectively died under a federal court ruling.
The timing of the move caused an uproar among transparency advocates, who are in the middle of Sunshine Week, a seven-day effort to promote open government and greater compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. The law allows the public to access federal documents with limited exceptions.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday characterized the rule change as a matter of cleaning up outdated regulations, noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia decided in 2009 that that the Office of Administration is not an agency as defined under FOIA and therefore not subject to the statute.
“It has no impact at all on the policy that we have maintained from the beginning to comply with the Freedom of Information Act when it’s appropriate,” Earnest said.
The George W. Bush administration first mounted the legal challenge that resulted in the FOIA exemption.
The Office of Administration complied with FOIA requests for years before the Bush administration stopped the practice, prompting a lawsuit by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The Obama White House has not released any records from the office under FOIA, using the court decision to justify its policy.
CREW criticized the Obama administration for its decision, saying it reversed a decades-long practice of opening office’s files to the public.
“This step makes mockery of the administration’s commitment to transparency, especially given that it’s Sunshine Week,” CREW executive director Anne Weismann said in a statement Tuesday. “Apparently they have abandoned even the appearance of transparency.”
Earnest said the awkward timing of the rule change was unintentional. The action appeared in the Federal Register on Tuesday with a note indicating that the action was final, meaning it would take effect without a public-comment period.
The Office of Administration provides a broad range of administrative services for the Executive Office of the President. The support can involve anything from information technology and mail to research and graphics development.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. concluded in its 2009 ruling that the office is not an agency because it “performs only operational and administrative tasks in support of the President and his staff” and therefore “lacks substantial independent authority.”
President Obama promised to run the most transparent government in U.S. history, but the administration has faced doubts and criticism about its efforts.
An Associated Press analysis published last year found that government secrecy had increased during the Obama years, with the administration censoring or outright denying FOIA access more in 2013 than it had ever done before.
Earnest defended Obama’s commitment to openness, saying the rule change is “cleanly in line with the kind of priority that this administration has placed on transparency.” He also noted that the Obama White House was the first to release its visitor logs.
A recent analysis by the Center for Effective Government shows that the Obama administration improved access to information last year, with eight out of the 15 federal agencies that handle the most FOIA requests improving their scores in the group’s annual report card.
Nonetheless, 10 agencies finished last year with unsatisfactory grades, earning less than 70 points out of a possible 100.