“If Turner's measure becomes law, all TARP documents would have to be made public….Turner has now given notice that Congress can stop executive branch abuses of the public's right to know if it chooses to do so.”
Examiner Editorial: In Obamaland, transparency is opaque
President Obama pledged on his first day in office to have the most open and transparent administration in history. His first executive order directed federal departments and agencies to release all documents when requested except under the narrowest exemptions allowed by the Freedom of Information Act. In theory, that was great, but in practice, it was anything but.
There is, of course, a long history of struggle between presidents and Congress over access to executive branch documents. Until recent years, most such disputes have been settled through prudent compromise between the branches. But for several decades now, presidents of both parties have increasingly claimed the separation of powers doctrine embedded in the Constitution lets them withhold steadily more documents from congressional oversight. And since the 2010 election, the Obama administration has refused to turn over thousands of documents sought by Congress concerning the Fast and Furious scandal, the Toxic Asset Recovery Program, and green-energy bankruptcies like Solyndra.
But it was inevitable that abuses by the executive branch in denying document requests from Congress would engender a reaction. A measure introduced Wednesday by Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, may represent the first step in just such a reaction. Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner and various officials under him have resolutely refused repeated requests from Turner and other members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for TARP documents, particularly those concerning decisions affecting auto industry pensions during the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts.
"Since implementation of the bailout, the government plunged headlong into buying toxic assets and preferred stock in financial institutions and became the majority shareholder of one of the country's largest automakers. The American public deserves access to information relating to the government's decision-making process; yet the government shields itself from the scrutiny that may have prevented these pensions from being unjustly terminated," said Turner, who has a particular interest by virtue of representing thousands of pensioners whose benefits were slashed by Treasury in the bailouts.
So Turner has introduced H.R. 4232, the Restoring Essential Safeguards for a Transparent, Open, and Reliable Executive under the Freedom of Information Act. RESTORE would no longer allow agencies to use the nine FOIA exemptions to withhold document requests whenever requests concern decisions "which result in the United States owning, subscribing to, or otherwise having any interest in the stock or equity of any company, association, or corporation, except for any investments through any pension funds." It would also remove from the FOIA exemptions decisions "in which the instrumentality or its employees or agents execute authority of the federal government's interests in owning, subscribing to, or otherwise having any interest in the stock or equity of any company, association, or corporation.''
If Turner's measure becomes law, all TARP documents would have to be made public. Neither Obama nor the Democratic Senate are likely to approve the Turner measure, but Oval Office occupants and congressional majorities change. And in any case, Turner has now given notice that Congress can stop executive branch abuses of the public's right to know if it chooses to do so.