Q&A: Sunshine Week
With U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley
Q: What drives your crusade to open up government business to the public?
A: First things first. Government business is the people’s business. And open government is good government. That’s why I work to let the sun shine in. It reminds those in the federal hierarchy for whom they are working and whose money they are spending. Sunshine Week happens to fall a month before Tax Day in America. It’s observed this week to celebrate the legacy of James Madison, the nation’s fourth president and champion of the Bill of Rights, who was born 265 years ago on March 16. Madison stood up to protect the public’s right to know and secured constitutional protections for the free flow of information. The First Amendment enshrines freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. As Americans are elbow-deep in tax filing season, Sunshine Week also serves as a good reminder who pays America’s bills. Using my constitutional oversight authority, I lead efforts in the people’s branch as a taxpayer’s watchdog and to uphold the public’s right to know. That includes exposing wrongdoing and holding the wrongdoers to account. And it seems the more I dig, the more dirt I seem to find. Instead of coming clean, the bureaucracy tries to cover up what’s wrong instead of working to make it right.
Oversight work takes tenacity. It’s not glamorous, it’s tedious and it doesn’t win any popularity contests in Washington. And it’s made even more challenging without cooperation from the executive branch. Despite President Obama’s pledge on his first full day in office to run the “most transparent administration in history,” he broke that promise long ago. This administration has reached unprecedented levels of stonewalling. Thanks to freedom of the press and laws passed by Congress to uphold the free flow of information, such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), we are discovering how deeply broken access to public records has become. Last year, the Associated Press found the Obama administration set a record for denying access to information under FOIA. Incredibly, the backlog of stalled requests across the federal bureaucracy – from FEMA to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Justice Department – rose more than 50 percent to more than 200,000 unfilled requests.
Q: How do you work to pull back the curtain of secrecy and win public disclosure?
A: I use legislative and oversight tools from my chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee and senior assignments on the Budget, Agriculture and Finance Committees to drill down on misconduct, misspending and mismanagement throughout the federal bureaucracy.
• For example, the Pentagon’s track record for fiscal malpractice reflects why continuous oversight is so important. The Pentagon is plagued by broken book-keeping. An example is an opinion by an internal watchdog that boasted a clean audit for the Marine Corps and later had to be withdrawn because of bad accounting. Most recently, I’m rooting out answers and accountability for how much the military spent on a compressed natural gas filling station in Afghanistan and additional money spent on luxury villas rather than military housing. Incredibly, even the multimillion-dollar amount spent on the filling station is in dispute; the Pentagon hasn’t produced any records that would verify the true cost.
•I’m also investigating the federal government’s misuse of paid administrative leave. The excessive use of paid leave puts taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars, including more than 2,500 workers at the VA who were paid not to work for at least one month in 2014. Taxpayers picked up the $23 million tab while the agency mishandled patient care with improper backlogs.
•Tracking accountability in health care is a big issue for policymakers and the American public for good reason. I’ve worked to enact sunshine payment laws that open up the financial relationships between physicians, teaching hospitals and drug and medical device companies. Watchdogs in government, the media and the general public are able to use these transparency tools to monitor payments and measure data points for patient safety and best outcomes. Most recently I’m working to expand the program to include other health professionals who receive payments from drug and medical device companies.
Q: What else is on the horizon for sunshine laws?
A: Upholding checks and balances is a fundamental part of my job. I’ve long worked to open up the federal judiciary to allow cameras in the courts. Opening access to the courts would give people a better understanding and appreciation for one of the three branches of the federal government: the judiciary. Beyond that, I stand up for good government watchdogs who bring pressure to bear on waste, fraud and abuse. That’s why I champion whistleblower protections to encourage people working on the front lines of the bureaucracy step forward to report wrongdoing. I also support the work of Inspectors General, the internal watchdogs who investigate and weed out corruption, cronyism and incompetence from within federal agencies. Here again, the Obama administration has thwarted transparency and pulled the wool over the eyes of the 72 Inspectors General (IG) and the American public. I’m advancing a bill that would make clear IGs have access to “all records” and restore these public servants as the eyes and ears within the executive branch. During Sunshine Week, I’m also working to secure passage of key FOIA updates. This bipartisan measure would strengthen the law to create a single request portal for all agencies and make more documents readily available online. It would fight back against the Obama administration’s overuse of exemptions and would require agencies to err on the side of openness when responding to FOIA requests. Sunshine Week reminds Americans that our institutions of government belong to the people. Transparency lights liberty’s torch that protects a free society from the tyranny of too much government.
Sunshine Week, March 13-19, raises awareness about the importance of open government and freedom of information.