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Sunday Talk: Grassley on Sunshine Week

Q: Why is Sunshine Week important to commemorate?

A: James Madison is known as the father of open government. During the week of his birthday, March 16, we honor his legacy with “Sunshine Week” to celebrate the public’s right to know. Thirty-five years after drafting the Constitution, Madison wrote that democracy without information is “but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy.” Nearly 100 years after that, Justice Louis Brandeis observed that publicity can remedy social and industrial wrongs. Before joining the Supreme Court in 1916, Brandeis wrote: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants: electric light the most efficient policeman.” As a watchdog for good government, I can affirm their luminous philosophy stands the test of time.

In my oversight work, I’ve found sunlight deters wrongdoing and strengthens the public trust between the taxpayer and those who hold the purse strings. Secrecy breeds distrust. Conducting the people’s business behind closed doors erodes the public trust. Transparency brings accountability. From pandemic relief to the Pentagon budget and federal health care spending, I work to put teeth in government accountability, anti-kickback and disclosure laws. As co-founder of the bipartisan Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, my work includes strengthening whistleblower protections for the brave souls who come forward to shed light on corruption and fraud that fleeces taxpayers, drains scarce resources away from those who need help and endangers public health and welfare. Frontline workers who maintain the nation’s food supply, energy grid and financial systems or those who serve in our federal law enforcement, national security and intelligence communities deserve protections and just incentives when they take the risk to come forward and report wrongdoing, including violations of criminal anti-trust laws.

For more than two centuries, our system of self-government derives its authority from “We the People.” That means the government is a service organization. It exists to serve the people. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, the challenge to forming a government requires a balance that can “control the governed; and…oblige it to control itself.” My work to let the sun shine in is rooted in my commitment to engage and empower the citizenry. Arming the public with information brings accountability to government. That’s why I’ve worked to update the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), written sunshine laws that allow families to track and compare nursing homes’ compliance with federal standards of care and inform patients about financial relationships between pharmaceutical and medical device companies with those who prescribe drugs and provide medical care. I’ll also keep pushing for “cameras in the courts.” In the last year, businesses, schools, lower courts and Congress have adapted to pandemic restrictions via video conferencing, online learning and teleworking. It changed business-as-usual and demonstrated advanced technology can bring medical appointments, congressional testimony and courtroom proceedings to millions of Americans. Allowing cameras in the federal courts would benefit the public by opening access to the third branch of the federal government.

 Q: What additional sunshine laws are you pushing in the 117th Congress?

A: As the top Republican serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’m building on my efforts to strengthen FOIA and improve the public’s right to access information. I’ll reintroduce bipartisan legislation that would restore a longstanding legal interpretation that was cast aside by the Supreme Court in a 2019 case that overturned four decades of precedent. As a result, the high court expanded the scope of one of FOIA’s exemptions, paving the way for government to withhold information. The ruling undermines access to public health and safety information, such as food inspections, drug manufacturing violations, pollution and government waste. As America seeks to recover from the pandemic and ensure COVID-19 relief is spent effectively, there’s even more urgency for public access to information. My bill would clarify any information that doesn’t fall within one of FOIA’s nine exemptions should be made public and not require watchdogs, journalists and private citizens to jump through regulatory hoops or be stonewalled indefinitely.

With passage of the sixth pandemic package in the span of 12 months, Congress has authorized $6 trillion in emergency federal assistance. That massive amount of money doesn’t appear out of thin air; it’s borrowed on the taxpayer dime. The public has a right to know where tax dollars go. That includes pandemic spending. That’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan, bicameral legislation to improve an online website for the American people to access government watchdog reports and investigations on how tax dollars are spent. Specifically, it dedicates resources to ensure pandemic relief spending and the work of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee is available to the public on the website at https://www.oversight.gov. Open government is good government.

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