Bowling Green Daily News Editorial

In this era of intense political division, any issue that receives balanced bipartisan attention is likely one of significant concern to the American people. We certainly believe this is the case regarding federal agencies’ increasing reluctance or tardiness in responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act, one of the cornerstones of government transparency.

Late last month, a bipartisan and bicameral group of legislators – including U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. – signed a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland urging him to push agencies to more promptly handle FOIA requests.

With certain exemptions, FOIA obligates government agencies to release documents and other information to the public on request. But even though the act is ostensibly a hallmark of the United States’ commitment to openness, fulfillment of such requests has slowed noticeably during recent presidential administrations.

“In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office found that agencies’ increased use of statutory exemptions outpaced the growth in FOIA requests overall from 2012 to 2019,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Full denials of FOIA requests increased by 10% in 2019 from 2012, and partial denials increased by 76% during the same period.”

The letter from legislators to Garland urges the attorney general not only to press federal agencies to improve their FOIA responses, but to also issue guidance to those agencies on how to approach the law – something the Biden administration is yet to do.

“Congress enacted FOIA so the American people could better understand the decisions being made by their government,” the lawmakers wrote. “FOIA requires that agencies respond to requests for information with a presumption of openness and without unnecessary withholdings, redactions or delays. A clear message from you that transparency is a priority would encourage agencies to fully comply with the law.”

We acknowledge that in some situations, the agencies’ delays could be due to workload or staffing issues, rather than an indicator of clandestine or nefarious intent. That said, federal agencies’ apparent lack of urgency in releasing legally mandated information does line up with troubling trends we’ve seen around the nation – including repeated instances in Kentucky, which we have lamented previously on this editorial page – that suggest lawmakers and public officials are actively trying to shield government business from the eyes of the public.

Whatever the reasons for the problems, we hope congressional leaders keep the heat on the administration until a solution is found. Although the average U.S. citizen probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about how his or her life is affected by FOIA, the law is a vital piece of American democracy and culture. Any weakening of FOIA’s potency represents affects us all detrimentally, and we applaud Comer and the others who signed this letter for taking notice and taking action. We hope they are successful in this pursuit.