Openness bill should be approved

The Missoulian

by Editorial

Say you wanted to know when certain members of the executive branch of our federal government travel on the public dime, and when their travel expenses are paid for by third parties. Or say you wanted to take a look at specific personal financial documents filed by other government officials.

This is public information and you, a citizen of the United States, have every right to view it. In fact, as a taxpayer, you pay to have it stored and made available to you.

But would you know how to go about actually seeing it? Short of traveling to Washington, D.C., where many – but not all – official government documents are kept, would you know which agency to write to? Would you know how to find out which agency stores which kinds of documents?

In this Information Age, most Americans have access to the Internet either at home or at their local public library, and we are growing increasingly accustomed to finding answers online. Yet when it comes to public documents, untold amounts of information remain offline.

Which means that this information, which our government produces in mindboggling volume each and every day, remains largely buried in shadow beneath stacks of more information, filed somewhere within the confusing tangle of federal bureaucracy, cut off from all but the most diligent citizen researchers.

Last week, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., introduced a piece of federal legislation that promises to strike a major blow for openness in government once it is approved by Congress.

And while the proposal will almost certainly be subjected to a long, winding political debate, it contains nothing any public representative could oppose with a straight face, and should ultimately be approved.

The Public Online Information Act, which Tester has introduced in the U.S. Senate and which Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., has brought to the U.S. House, is a very good thing for sunshine in government. In 28 pages, it lays out requirements for members of the executive branch to make public records available online within three years of the bill's passage. That information would be available within a single searchable database that would not cost a penny to use.

What's more, the act would create a new "watchdog advisory committee" made up of a bipartisan membership from all three branches of government who would be charged with establishing guidelines for posting public information online.

"Tester has put down an important transparency marker: In today's world, for information to be truly public, it must be made available online," said Ellen Miller, executive director and co-founder of the national Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in government and is among the groups applauding the Public Online Information Act.

Tester has made transparency a central theme of his political career, and Montanans have been pleased to see him live up to his stated commitment to openness for the most part. We applauded when he began doing such simple – but in Congress, exceedingly rare – things such as posting his daily public schedule on his website and forbidding his staff from accepting any gifts or meals from lobbyists.

"Montanans sent me to the Senate partly to help clean up Washington, and I'm doing just that," Tester said last week in a prepared statement. "From day one, we've blazed a new trail of openness and accountability. Now it's time to raise the bar and set new standards for public access, and make sure transparency is keeping up with online technology. Because a little sunshine on government is always a good thing. And folks in Montana aren't alone in expecting open, honest government."

Tester's new proposal most certainly would set a new standard for government accountability in our democracy, but he will need the strong arms of public support in order to raise that bar. Montanans should be proud to provide it.