Sen. Grassley joined a bipartisan, bicameral letter to the GAO to seek review of FOIA compliance at federal agencies.
I come to the floor today to celebrate Sunshine Week, an important week in our system of self-government. For the last 17 years, advocacy groups, good government watchdogs, media organizations and many members of this body, have joined forces to observe the importance of transparency and freedom of information.
As a longtime champion for an open, accessible government, I speak today in support of those enduring principles. Sunshine Week coincides each year with March 16. That’s the day one of our nation’s founding fathers and fourth president of the United States, James Madison, was born. Madison is widely known as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. From his writings in the Federalist Papers, you might say he was the architect who framed our system of checks and balances.
Madison believed all powers of the government are derived of, by and for the people. And that’s what brings me to the floor today, Mr. President. The public has a right to know what their government is doing and how it’s spending tax dollars. Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, everyday Americans can ask a federal agency for information. Unfortunately, federal agencies seem to have the unstated goal of releasing as little information as possible to the public. Agencies rely on exemptions to FOIA to withhold information.
A 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that federal agencies’ use of FOIA exemptions to avoid disclosing documents doubled from 2012 to 2019. Most Americans may not be familiar with the “b 3” FOIA exemption and they don’t need to be. But they should know that it’s the most used justification by federal agencies to withhold information from the public.
The increase in the use of this FOIA exemption to withhold information from the public is unacceptable. In another recent report, the GAO found that FOIA request backlogs increased by nearly 20 percent from 2019 to 2020. In fact, backlogged FOIA requests are up 97 percent since 2012.
Sixteen federal agencies had more than one thousand backlogged FOIA requests. They account for 94 percent of backlogged requests across the entire government. Federal agencies must do better, and I will work to ensure they’re responding appropriately and within a reasonable time to FOIA requests. Congressional oversight is part of our constitutional assignment: to protect the power of the purse and ensure laws are faithfully enforced.
Finally, we must acknowledge the important role of citizens who bravely come forward – often at great professional risk – to report wrongdoing in our effort to prevent waste fraud and abuse. I’ve often said that whistleblowers are the best line of defense against government waste. No one shines a brighter light on waste, fraud and abuse than whistleblowers.
That’s why I introduced legislation this Congress to strengthen the False Claims Act. Since 1986, the False Claims Act has helped the government recover $70 billion in fraud. And last year I asked the Department of Veterans Affairs about allegations that VA employees leaked potentially market-sensitive information and then retaliated against whistleblowers.
Nearly one year later I haven’t received any answers. As co-founder and co-chairman of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, I lead efforts from Capitol Hill to strengthen protections and raise awareness for what’s often an uphill battle for whistleblowers. I often say they’re treated like skunks at a Sunday picnic.
This U.S. senator will continue shining the spotlight on waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon and elsewhere. I will continue advocating for whistleblowers with every tool at my disposal. As an Iowa farmer, I know why farmers make hay when the sun shines. And that’s a good lesson for good government. Sunshine helps hold government accountable to the people.