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Q: What is Sunshine Week?


A: Sunshine Week celebrates the public’s right to know what its government is doing. As a watchdog for good government, I put a high priority on strengthening sunshine laws to hold the government accountable to the American people. Transparency brings accountability. Too often, the federal bureaucracy forgets that government business is the people’s business. Just consider one of our nation’s first and prolific defenders of open government. James Madison recognized how important transparency was to get buy-in from the victors of the Revolutionary War to form a new government. Americans who shed blood to free themselves from tyranny would want constitutional guardrails to prevent encroachment of these freedoms for generations to come. Sunshine Week honors Madison’s legacy on the anniversary of his birth on March 16, 1751.


Widely recognized as the Father of the Constitution, Madison infused sunshine into the Bill of Rights by enshrining individual freedoms in the First Amendment, including freedoms of speech and of the press. Whether the 18th or 21st century, the connection between an informed citizenry and an open government is central to our system of self-government. Consider recent actions of the Biden administration. Using government powers to chill free speech or undermine religious liberty is wrong. That’s why I pushed back on the Department of Justice for its misguided efforts to police school board meetings and knock down the door of religious liberty by targeting people of Catholic faith. I’m also keeping my foot on the gas to understand the origins of COVID-19. The pandemic turned the U.S. economy upside down and killed more than one million Americans. We need to know how it started to help prevent pandemics and global crises in the future. Sunshine is said to be the best disinfectant, and from my decades of oversight work, I have found it to be the most powerful tool to weed out wrongdoing and corruption. Confidence in our institutions of government requires knowledge and access to the government’s work, including federal agency records and proceedings in the judicial branch. That’s why I work to strengthen Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws and continue to push my bipartisan legislation to allow cameras in federal court and acquaint the next generation with the work of the federal judiciary. Simply put, the people’s business ought to be public. From releasing information about JFK’s assassination to protecting whistleblowers from retaliation and rooting out secrecy of corporate wrongdoing to uphold the integrity of our financial systems and protect retirement income from fraud on Wall Street, open government is good government. Five years after leaving the White House, our nation’s fourth president wrote that a “people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”


Q: What is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?


A: Madison’s writings shed light on his motivation to safeguard open government. He viewed transparency as a fulcrum to individual freedom and preservation of our republic, writing in 1825 that “….knowledge is the only Guardian of true liberty.” Some 141 years later, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), making it the nation’s primary transparency law to empower any person, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records. The law provides for specific exemptions that would do harm to national security, individual privacy, proprietary business interests and the functioning of the government. The U.S. Supreme Court also has ruled that FOIA is “needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”


As former chairman and senior lawmaker on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I work to strengthen and update FOIA laws to ensure the government is in compliance and accountable to the American people. Recently, whistleblowers, aided by FOIA requests, exposed wrongdoing at the Veterans Administration. As is often the case, the federal bureaucracy dragged its feet. That song and dance prompts me to dig in my heels to get to the bottom of bureaucratic stonewalling. Time and again, sunshine proves to be the best disinfectant. My efforts to investigate and root out alleged sexual misconduct at the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the FBI were informed by whistleblowers. My oversight of potential misconduct and mismanagement at nursing homes were informed by news reporting protected under the First Amendment.


The Department of Justice in March released its annual report of FOIA requests. Of the 120 federal agencies subject to FOIA, the federal government recorded an all-time high of 929,323 requests for public records in fiscal year 2022. From my senior position on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’ll continue to hold the Biden administration accountable to reduce the FOIA backlog. Waiting years for a response to a FOIA request is comparable to the principle that justice delayed is justice denied. To learn more or to make a federal records request, visit foia.gov.  


Sunshine Week is March 12-18, 2023.

Author: Charles Grassley

Chuck Grassley of New Hartford has represented Iowa in the United States Senate since 1980.


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