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John C.
Republican TX

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  • Freedom of Information Act

    by Senator John Cornyn

    Posted on 2016-01-11

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    CORNYN. Madam President, I understand that later today the House of Representatives will vote to pass a reform of the Freedom of Information Act, which is often referred to by its acronym, FOIA. I wish to say a few words about that legislation.

    I applaud the effort of the House. I have long believed that it is really important to make sure that the people who actually pay the bills and whom we serve know what government is doing on their behalf. Thus the name of the legislation signed by President Johnson many years ago is the Freedom of Information Act. Too often here in Washington, DC, the people in charge of the information seem to view it as proprietary, as if it were theirs. In a political culture where information is power, they don't want to share that information with the people who actually own it and are the ones who hold the elected officials accountable. An open government is really one of the first prerequisites to a free society, and that is because an open and accessible government is absolutely necessary for Americans to hold their elected officials accountable.

    Our Founding Fathers, of course, recognized that a truly democratic system depends on an informed citizenry, but Americans cannot do that without the information and transparency that these laws provide.

    Former Justice William Brandeis famously said that ``sunlight is the best disinfectant.'' I must say, as a person who is conservative, that I believe that rather than passing a bunch of new laws, one of the things we can do to change the behavior here in Washington is to shine a light on the actions of elected officials and the government. When elected officials know that the public is informed and watching, it changes the way people behave, and it usually changes it for the better. Congress has passed numerous pieces of legislation that promote this accountability and transparency of government since President Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law so that good leadership and good governance can flourish.

    During my time in the Senate and previously when I was the attorney general of Texas, I made government transparency a priority. I pressed for more openness in the Federal Government through commonsense legislation. During the process, I found a partner in those efforts in the Senate. He is somebody who is my ideological opposite, and that is Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont.

    Senator Leahy and I both embrace the fact that most of the time elected officials and government officials want to trumpet their successes and they want to hide their failures. But the American people deserve to know the good, the bad, and the ugly, and to apply the correctives that are within their power, either in changing those officials or holding those officials accountable.

    So the legislation that is going to pass the House later today is similar to what we have already passed here in the Senate Judiciary Committee by voice vote in February. It requires Federal agencies to operate under a presumption of openness when considering the release of government information under the Freedom of Information Act. Texas law, for example, presumes that public information held by government is presumptively open. If there is some reason why it should not be disclosed--let's say classified materials or whatever--then it is incumbent upon the agency to raise those concerns and then to have those concerns decided in the process of administering those laws. But the idea is also to reduce the overuse of exemptions to withhold information from the public. I hope this Chamber will soon join our colleagues in the House to consider this important legislation.

    There may be some things we need to do to fine-tune it. I certainly understand that on national security, for example, or things involving proprietary information--trademark protections and property protections--there may be some areas where we have to make some slight changes. But, essentially, this presumption of openness is important to the functioning of our democratic form of government, and I look forward to our passing the law that [[Page S14]] will be passed by the House Chamber later today.


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