President George W. Bush’s critics are charging that he is attempting to use a “backdoor signing statement” to thwart the will of Congress to help lift the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the U.S. Government for the past seven years.
In August of last year, Congress passed the Open Government Act. The measure established a new Office of Government Information within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an independent Federal agency charged with preserving and documenting government and historical records and increasing public access to those documents. The office was to be headed by an ombudsman to oversee disputes over the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), avoid unnecessary litigation, and monitor the way Department of Justice (DOJ) implements that law.
President Bush signed the measure in December 2007. But when he submitted his $3.1 trillion budget proposal to Congress, no funds were included for the new program. Instead, the funding was hidden deep within the budget appendix under the Department of Commerce -- on page 239 of the 1,314-page document – and shifted the new office to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy, one of the original cosponsors of the Open Government Act, said, "Such a move is not only contrary to the express intent of the Congress, but it is also contrary to the very purpose of this legislation — to ensure the timely and fair resolution of Americans’ FOIA requests."
The reason: The DOJ is the department charged with defending agencies accused of inappropriately withholding documents requested under the FOIA. This gives it a bias in favor of federal agencies, making it both judge and jury.
According to Sean Moulton, Director of Federal Information Policy for OMB Watch, a not-for-profit government watchdog group, “The president is definitely using his budget proposal to try and relocate the FOIA Ombudsman office (OGIS) to the DOJ. It is similar to signing statements in that it is the president's attempt to alter implementation of a law as it was laid out by congress.”
Leahy also noted DOJ's "abysmal record on FOIA compliance" over the past seven years as another reason the agency makes a poor choice for the location of OGIS.
The Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the U.S. Government.
In 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a memo stating that the DOJ would defend in court any federal agency that withheld information on justifiable grounds. Previously, the standard was that the presumption was for disclosure. The new law restored the previous presumption.
Throughout his administration, President Bush has used so-called “signing statements,” rather than the budget, to modify acts of Congress he finds objectionable. Perhaps the best-known of these was issued after he signed the so-called McCain Amendment to the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. That measure was intended to prohibit inhumane treatment of prisoners, including prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; and required military interrogations to be performed according to the Code of Military Justice. After signing the law, Bush issued a signing statement saying he would interpret the law “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief.”
Such statements have become a hallmark of the Bush Administration. From the inception of the Republic until 2000, presidents produced fewer than 600 signing. Since 2001, President Bush has objected on constitutional grounds to sections of more than 750 laws.
But critics of the Bush Administration say they are not surprised at the president’s use of the budget to thwart the will of congress. They see the tactic as part of a pattern of restricting access to information. They cite the growth of public requests for information under the Freedom of Information over the last six years. In 2006, the total number of FOIA requests received in 2006 was 21,412,736, substantially larger than in 2005.