The federal agency also makes decisions affecting American Indian casinos, of which Wisconsin has many. It doles out millions of dollars in grants for conservation and wildlife programs.
So Wisconsin residents have a strong interest in knowing what the department is doing.
Unfortunately, Interior officials don’t like the public asking questions and requesting documents. The federal agency recently proposed rules to restrict how journalists, interest groups and ordinary citizens may seek public information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Newspapers and other advocates for open government are objecting to the Interior Department’s unnecessary and unlawful restrictions. So is a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives. Wisconsin’s entire congressional delegation should oppose Interior’s proposal to discourage and complicate public inquiry.
The Interior Department’s restrictions would hide the email addresses of public workers who handle public information requests, making it easier for government officials to dodge scrutiny and accountability. Instead, the public would be directed to “electronic portals,” which limit what can be requested and have a history of losing information.
The proposed rules also would give Interior officials more reasons to deny requests for information, such as those “requiring research.” This would make it easier for secretive bureaucrats to deny just about any FOIA request.
Another unjustified restriction would be a “monthly limit for processing records,” with language allowing Interior officials to charge higher fees for public information. The new rules would replace the words “time limit” with “time frame,” an obvious attempt to extend deadlines for turning over documents.
A coalition of 40 news organizations has strongly objected. So has a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including U.S. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; House Oversight chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; Senate Appropriations leader Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; and Senate Finance member John Cornyn, R-Texas.
“The proposed rule appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA,” the lawmakers wrote last week. “Rather than clarifying DOI’s FOIA process, the proposed rule would make the process more confusing and potentially expose it to politicization and unnecessary litigation.”
Interior officials have complained about a “surge” in FOIA requests. But that’s mostly because former Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, wasted public money and resigned amid scandal.
That’s no excuse to clamp down on the public’s right to know. If anything, it warrants greater transparency.
Today is the start of Sunshine Week, when journalists and many other advocates highlight the need to shine light on government institutions and decisions. To help mark this important week, the Interior Department should withdraw and rethink its offensive restrictions on public information.