When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the nation’s Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966, he set a standard that all agencies should be held to—though his and later administrations would struggle to live up to it.
“A democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits,” LBJ said at the signing ceremony on July 4 of that year. “No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”
All we at the Texas Public Policy Foundation are doing is taking LBJ—and the plain text of the FOIA itself—at their word. We’re suing the U.S. government to compel the release of records regarding our participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Biden administration is taking a “whole of government” approach to constrict our energy consumption and carbon emissions; you have a right to know exactly how it’s doing so.
What is FOIA? It’s the set of laws, at both the federal and state levels, that guarantees that public business—our business—is conducted out in the open, that the decisions made which affect all of us are fully transparent, and decision-makers are accountable for their decrees.
In one of his first acts as president on Jan. 20, 2021, Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States. Countries party to the Paris Agreement pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by submitting a plan for climate action, known as a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).
On April 22, 2021, the United States submitted an NDC pledging an “economy-wide target of reducing [the United States’] net greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.”
That’s an ambitious goal, and it’s directly influencing the lives and livelihoods of all Americans. So in February of this year, TPPF’s Life:Powered initiative submitted FOIA requests for records related to federal agencies’ efforts to come up with and achieve the 2030 NDC emissions target. Since then? Crickets. To date, the Foundation has not received any additional communication from the key federal agencies regarding its FOIA requests.
Specifically, TPPF is suing the Department of Energy, the State Department and the Commerce Department for records—your records. Because you have a right to know. And because you have right to know in a timely manner, FOIA laws impose deadlines. The federal agencies we’re suing have broken those deadlines—and with them, the compact that those in power have implicitly made with the citizens of the U.S.
Ensuring the feds comply with the law is important, but beyond that, Americans need to know exactly what those agencies are planning. The Biden administration’s “whole of government approach” to climate change echoes Germany’s efforts—which have ended in disaster. Germany pledged to end fossil fuel use and become 100% renewable. But after spending $500 billion over 20 years, the percentage of energy derived from oil, coal and gas went from 86% to 79%—and Germany is now reopening coal plants in hopes of keeping its people from freezing to death this winter. Meanwhile, its citizens are paying some of the highest electric bills in the world.
Is that what the Biden administration has planned for us? We don’t know—and we won’t know, until it’s too late, unless the courts force the federal government to comply with the Freedom of Information Act.
But ignoring FOIA requests is nothing new; as Editor & Publisher, a trade publication for the news industry, reported in October, “According to News/Media Alliance, about 8% of FOIA requests never receive a response. There are no consequences for the agency if they fail to respond.”
Too often, E&P adds, reporters and citizens who file FOIA requests and are ignored, and they just give up. Reporters are often under tight deadlines, and lip-zipped officials simply wait them out.
That won’t work here, of course; we have the time—and the resolve—to seek the injunctive relief set out in the FOIA statutes.
Of course, your right to know what your government is up to didn’t just pop into existence with LBJ. It’s a fundamental principle of good government.
As James Madison pointed out, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”
But it’s U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who put it best—and summed up the real reason for FOIA laws, and their strict enforcement, and our lawsuits.
“Sunlight,” he wrote, is the “best disinfectant.”