Although it has been over a year since the election of President Joe Biden, his administration still has not published guidance for agencies regarding federal public records laws. This is a departure from tradition and has made transparency advocates unhappy.
The second was sent by a coalition representing transparency groups this week LetterFor the Justice Department, to publish a memo regarding the interpretation of Freedom of Information Act, the 1966 groundbreaking law which allows the public to access government records.
Open the Government, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Society of Professional Journalists formed a coalition that sent an identical message. LetterLast April, the Justice Department requested that it issue an FOIA memorandum. The Justice Department never responded.
“Our goal was to see the DOJ address the government’s worrying tendency towards less. Disclosure and the growing challenges requesteders face during the FOIA procedure,” the letter stated this week, noting that there is a continuing increase in federal court cases against public records.
The letter states that “By one measure, agency noncompliance to the FOIA is the number of FOIA litigation case, noncompliance has been at a decade-long peak even though requesters are still waiting longer than ever before they can initiate litigation.” We appeal again to you to take action on this crucial matter.
It is vital that journalists have easy access to documents from federal agencies. This applies not only to reporters but to advocacy groups, researchers and citizens. The federal government’s infrequent compliance with law violations and an increasing number of FOIA requests per year have resulted in swamped FOIA office, huge backlogs and processing delays. Court dockets are also clogged with lawsuits.
Clearinghouse for Transactional Records Access at Syracuse University reportedThe number of FOIA suits pending at federal district courts rose by 1,683 to the end FY 2020. This is nearly three and a quarter times more than the number of cases that were pending a decade earlier.
The Biden administration failed to issue a memo, or acknowledge that the matter was being addressed by them surprised transparency advocates. Despite Trump’s refusal to make such a memo, Republican and Democrat administrations have in the past issued memos their first year through either the White House, or the Justice Department. They praised their willingness to be transparent and laid out expectations regarding how records requests from federal agencies will be dealt with.
Ryan Mulvey from the Americans for Prosperity Foundation’s policy counsel, said that “it has become a routine for anincoming administration to give a public declaration of its goals for increasing transparency and improving FOIA management.” The formal tone is set by that statement. It could be a President’s statement or an Attorney-General memo. The transparency community in government has yet to see anything from President Biden. It’s disappointing. FOIA has been broken, and it needs to be reformed. The President is able to lead that effort.
Former President Barack Obama published a example of this: Day-one memoOn transparency, although his administration sometimes failed to live to its lofty promises), John Ashcroft published a FOIA MemoThe George W. Bush administration was in its first year.
Advocates claim that they have not been able find any White House staffer who is working to improve transparency.
Anne Weismann (external counsel for several transparency group and ex-counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, Washington) says that there does not seem to be any White House counsel with transparency in their portfolio. “They haven’t been willing to discuss the issue and that’s very disappointing.”
The White House didn’t respond to our request for comment. The Justice Department refused to comment.