A survey commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper editors found only seven percent believe the federal government is very open, and another eighteen percent thought it was somewhat open; with thirty two percent finding it somewhat secretive and anther thirty seven percent finding it very secretive. The Washington Editor for McClachy newspapers, David Westphal said, “This is quite disturbing news. . . When only twenty five percent of the people consider theirs is an open government, that’s a real problem in a democracy.” The survey also found that sixty three percent found it very likely, and eighteen percent somewhat likely, that the federal government has opened mail or monitored telephone conversations of people in the U.S. without first getting permission from a judge.
What effect does it have on government when the majority of its citizens think it is spying on them and hiding things from them? An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found fifty-five percent consider honesty, integrity, and other character values to be the most important quality when selecting a presidential candidate. In a representative government, citizens must have faith in their government. It must be a government they trust. That faith, in our government, has been eroded by abuse of the patriot act, and the arrest of prominent elected officials for corruption. But it is not just honesty and openness that had led to our distrust of government. Hurricane Katrina and the Walter Reed scandals showed a fundamental level of incompetence. They have left us fearing for our personal safety if we have to depend on our federal government when in need.
Democrats are taking steps to restore our faith in government. Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman said, “For the past six years, we have had an administration that has tried to operate in secrecy, without transparency, without the public having knowledge about their action. . .Well, this week, Congress is finally pushing back.”
Both the House and Senate are considering bills that would enforce the government’s responsibility to answer the millions of Freedom of Information Act requests it receives every year. The House and Senate bills would impose penalties and incentives, to ensure that agencies abide by the 20-business-day deadline for responses. It would also provide a way to track the status of a request for information. The House bill would also restore a “presumption of disclosure” standard that obliges agencies to release requested information unless there is a finding that such a disclosure could do harm.
The House is also considering a bill that would rescind President Bush’s 2001 executive order giving current presidents and vice presidents the authority to withhold presidential records or delay their release indefinitely. A statement by the administration said President Bush would be advised to veto the presidential records bill because it would “invite unnecessary litigation, is misguided and would improperly impinge on the president's constitutional authority.” Congress is also considering a bill that would improve protection to whistle-blowers who report wrongdoing by the government. The Bush Administration has also advised it would veto the whistle blower act because they considered it unconstitutional and could compromise national security. Congress is also considering bills to improve transparency in federal contracting.
The ongoing investigations by Congress into the wrongdoing, the new legislation to correct the worst abuses, are start towards restoring our faith in government. But we have a long way to go before Americans have faith in their government again.