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Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2015

March 9, 2015

A building block of American democracy is the idea that as citizens, we have a right to information about how our government works and what it does in our name.The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to promptly respond to public requests for information unless disclosure of the requested information would harm a protected interest. But implementation of the law since its passage in 1966 has been uneven and inconsistent across federal agencies.This is the second year we have conducted a very detailed comparative analysis of the performance of the 15 federal agencies that consistently receive the most FOIA requests. Combined, these 15 agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests for each of the last two years. We examined their performance in three key areas:The establishment of clear agency rules guiding the release of information and communication with those requesting information;The quality and "user-friendliness" of an agency's FOIA website; andThe timely, complete processing of requests for information.The number of requests each agency receives, the complexity of the requests, and the number of staff assigned within an agency to process them varies widely and can impact performance.The results of our analysis: eight out of 15 agencies improved their overall scores this year, and in each of the three performance areas, more agencies received the highest grades (A). But only two agencies improved their FOIA policy guidelines, and processing scores actually declined in eight agencies. Ten of the agencies failed to achieve a satisfactory overall grade.Fulfilling the promise of full, timely public access to meaningful government information is an ongoing, complex process that requires leadership and commitment. The Obama administration, Congress, and agency leaders need to ensure that agencies have the staff and resources they need to process requests in a timely manner.

The Bridge to Prosperity: Reverse Reckless Cuts, Restore Our Infrastructure, and Revive Jobs

May 15, 2014

The United States is facing a growing infrastructure crisis and a lingering jobs crisis.Most of America's infrastructure was built in the decades directly after World War II. Each day in America, more than 700 water mains break. Seventeen percent of water pumped by municipal pumping stations never reaches consumers' faucets – a waste of 2.4 trillion gallons of precious water each year. Potholes on the nation's roads cost the average family $355 in additional car repairs annually, deficient roads and bridges will cost businesses an estimated $43 billion a year in transportation delays and shipment rerouting, and too many children attend schools with leaky roofs, rattling windows, and decrepit plumbing.Five years into the economic recovery, nearly ten million Americans remain unemployed, more than a third of them for more than six months. There's only one open job for every three people who want to work.A large portion of America's infrastructure in the U.S. is funded by federal monies. Despite the obvious need for better infrastructure and for more jobs, Congress has failed to invest in important infrastructure repairs that our communities need. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, it would take a sustained annual investment of $125 billion a year to bring our roads, bridges, dams, levees, water systems and sewers, and school buildings up to 21st century standards. Making that sort of investment would create 2.5 million good new jobs and would ensure U.S. cities can compete with those in other modern nations.We can invest in infrastructure and jobs if we recapture the $150 billion of tax revenue that leaks out of the Treasury every year, by plugging the corporate tax loopholes that wealthy individuals and prosperous multinational corporations use to avoid paying taxes. We need to make sure those who benefit most from the public structures and services provided by the federal government pay their fair share of the costs of keeping our nation's infrastructure in good shape.Invest now, build a platform for business growth, and create jobs in the bargain. To build and maintain the public structures that make private economic activity possible, the federal government should increase spending on programs that pave the way for future growth. Such investments would spur immediate job growth, creating a "virtuous circle" of more money circulating in the economy, more job creation, and more tax dollars flowing in to federal, state, and local governments from sales taxes, payroll taxes, and income taxes.

Making the Grade: Access to Information Scorecard 2014

March 10, 2014

A building block of American democracy is the idea that as citizens, we have a right to information about how our government works and what it does in our name. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to promptly respond to public requests for information unless disclosure of the requested information would harm a protected interest. Unfortunately, since its passage in 1966 and reform in 1974, federal agencies have failed to implement the law consistently, which can make it challenging for citizens to gain access to public information as the law guarantees.This analysis evaluates the performance of the 15 federal agencies that received the greatest number of FOIA requests in fiscal year 2012. These agencies received over 90 percent of all information requests that year. We examined their performance in three key areas:Processing requests for information (the rate of disclosure, the fullness of information provided, and timeliness of the response);Establishing rules for information access (effectiveness of agency policy on withholding information and communicating with requesters); andCreating user-friendly websites (facilitating the flow of information to citizens, online services, and up-to-date reading rooms).The results are sobering. None of the 15 agencies earned exemplary scores (an overall A grade), and only eight earned "passing grades" (60 or more out of a possible 100 points). The low scores are not due to impossibly high expectations. In each of three performance areas, at least one agency earned an A, showing that excellence is possible. But the fact that no agency was able to demonstrate excellence across all three areas illustrates the difficulty agencies seem to be having inconsistently combining all the elements of an effective disclosure policy.

Best Practices for Agency Freedom of Information Act Regulations

December 9, 2013

Of the 100 agencies in the federal government subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), dozens of agencies have not yet updated their FOIA regulations to reflect requirements in the OPEN Government Act of 2007. The OPEN Government Act required federal agencies to better assist people who make requests for public information under FOIA – for instance, by providing individualized tracking numbers in order to check the status of a request. Despite additional direction from President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to improve FOIA processing, six years later, most agency regulations include few of the best practices described below.FOIA regulations should be easy for both requesters and agency staff to understand and should promote transparency by highlighting existing practices in federal agencies. The Obama administration has committed to developing common FOIA regulations and practices applicable to all agencies. This report is designed to be a practical guide for the administration and agency staff engaged in improving FOIA regulations and practices.

The Corporate Tax Rate Debate: Lower Taxes on Corporate Profits Not Linked to Job Creation

December 3, 2013

The American corporate tax system is badly broken. Some corporations pay more than a third of their profits in federal income taxes, while other equally profitable firms pay nothing at all. On average, corporations pay just 12.6 percent of their profits in federal income taxes, according to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.Corporate and political leaders keep telling us that cutting corporate tax rates will create jobs.Our examination of the evidence found no relationship between cutting tax rates on corporate profits and job growth.We examined the job creation track record of 60 large, profitable U.S. corporations (from a list of 280 Fortune 500 companies) with the highest and lowest effective tax rates between 2008 and 2010 and found:22 of the 30 corporations that paid the highest tax rates (30 percent or more) on their reported profits created almost 200,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012. Only eight of the 30 firms paying high tax rates reported reducing the number of employees between 2008 and 2012.The 30 profitable corporations that paid little or no taxes over three years collectively shed 51,289 jobs; half of these low-tax firms created some jobs, and half shed jobs between 2008 and 2012.Lowe's, the nation's second-largest home improvement store, paid over 36 percent in taxes on reported profits of $9 billion between 2008 and 2010, and hired an additional 28,820 employees between 2008 and 2012.Verizon, the nation's largest wireless provider, reported $32 billion in U.S. profits between 2008 and 2010, yet received tax refunds totaling $951 million and reduced the number of employees by almost 56,000 between 2008 and 2012.In 2004, when a temporary "tax holiday" on offshore profits was put in place, 58 firms brought $218 billion in profits back to the U.S. under the program, for a savings of $64 billion on their taxes. In the following two years, those 58 firms eliminated 600,000 jobs.In 2012, U.S. corporations reported earning nearly $1.8 trillion in profits. Had they paid the 35 percent tax rate on those profits, total corporate tax receipts would have been $630 billion (rather than the $242 billion they actually paid), and the deficit would have been reduced by nearly a third.Today, large U.S. corporations report more than $1 trillion in cash or liquid assets. They have the funds to invest in new jobs, should they choose to do so. We found no evidence that cutting the tax rate on corporate profits induces firms to create new jobs in the United States. However, several legal loopholes and deductions do discourage job creation in the U.S. and should be eliminated. This would raise significant revenue and make the tax code fairer.

ALEC’s Latest Trojan Horse: The Attack on Standards and Safeguards Moves to the States

November 13, 2013

In recent years, special interests and their allies in Congress have pushed a number of dangerous proposals to "reform" the rulemaking process to undermine the standards and safeguards that guarantee clean air and water, safe workplaces, healthy food, and safe medicines. Now, these same special interests are pushing similar proposals in the states.

Securing the Right to a Safe and Healthy Workplace: Improve State Laws to Protect Workers

October 23, 2013

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), passed in 1970, recognizes that workers play a critical role in ensuring their workplaces are healthy and safe. The OSH Act gives workers the right to report unsafe working conditions and the right to refuse to work under such conditions without reprisal. The concept is for workers to function as the "eyes and ears" of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and help the agency prioritize its limited resources to focus inspections on the most dangerous work sites. Workers will only report safety and health hazards in the workplace, however, if they can come forward without fear of reprisal. Thus, the law prohibits employers from taking any adverse action against employees who exercise the rights provided to them under the OSH Act.Unfortunately, the weak guarantees written into the federal OSH Act leave workers with few protections against retaliation by an employer after reporting dangerous working conditions. Problems with current protections include the fact that the amount of time required to file a retaliation complaint is too short, investigations take too long, the burden of proof is too high, OSHA cannot preliminarily reinstate an employee once it determines that a complaint has merit, and employees cannot pursue a remedy independently, even if OSHA takes no action on their behalf. Between 2005 and 2012, OSHA received 11,153 complaints of retaliation, 10,380 were reviewed, and 2,542 (24.49 percent) were found to "have merit." Of these, 2,390 were settled out of court; 152 were recommended for litigation. But because OSHA filed suit in only seven percent of cases recommended for litigation, hundreds of workers were left without an adequate remedy.The ineffectiveness of section 11(c) of the OSH Act has dire implications for workplace health and safety across the country. The Center for Effective Government released a report in August 2013, entitled What's At Stake: Austerity Budgets Threaten Worker Health and Safety, examining the impact of sequestration (in addition to the House of Representatives proposed budget cuts) on OSHA's ability to carry out its important work and keep America's workers safe and healthy. The report shows that OSHA has historically had a meager budget for enforcing its regulations given the breadth of its broad mandate, with funding for only one inspector per 1,900 workplaces in 1981. Today, in an era of fiscal retrenchment, OSHA's resources are even more stretched – its funding supports only one inspector for every 4,300 workplaces. Now more than ever, OSHA needs help from workers to prioritize its inspections and efficiently apply its limited resources.

What's At Stake: House Transportation and Housing Spending Bill Would Cut Rail Investments and Rental Assistance

September 13, 2013

Attempts by House Republicans to cut domestic programs below this year's already-low post-sequestration spending levels ran into trouble in late July when the House Republican leadership pulled legislation from the House floor (H.R. 2610) that would have funded the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). According to reports, the bill was pulled because it lacked sufficient support to pass.

What's At Stake: Austerity Budgets Threaten Worker Health and Safety

August 29, 2013

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is tasked with ensuring that every working man and woman in America has "safe and healthful working conditions." Established in 1970 under Nixon's "new federalism," and housed in the Department of Labor, its enforcement staff comes from both federal and state agencies. The agencies responsible for worker health and safety have never been well funded, and with their budgets shrinking, their ability to achieve their mission is increasingly at risk. New cuts are likely to result in more unsafe workplaces, more accidents and injuries, and higher costs for business and society down the road.

Assessing Progress Toward a 21st Century Right to Know

March 1, 2011

On Nov. 12, 2008, the right-to-know community published a set of detailed transparency recommendations for President-elect Barack Obama and Congress. Those recommendations, titled Moving Toward a 21st Century Right-to-Know Agenda, were developed over a two-year period with input from more than 100 groups and individuals. The seventy recommendations urged the new president and the incoming Congress to act quickly on a number of key government openness issues while also encouraging a more systematic, longer-term approach to a variety of other transparency problems that plague the federal government. The recommendations were endorsed by more than 300 organizations and individuals from across the political spectrum. A senior White House official privately called the recommendations a "blueprint for the Obama administration."The report organized the majority of the recommendations into three chapters.The National Security and Secrecy chapter provided specific recommendations to address the increase in government secrecy that has occurred due to professed national and homeland security concerns.The Usability of Government Information chapter focused on recommendations for how interactive technologies can make information more easily accessible and usable, including protecting the integrity of information and using the best formats and tools.The Creating a Government Environment for Transparency chapter addressed recommendations for creating incentives for openness and shifting government policies and mechanisms to encourage transparency.An additional chapter laid out recommendations for the first 100 days of the administration; the implementation of those recommendations was assessed in an earlier OMB Watch report.This report seeks to assess progress on each recommendation near the midpoint of the president's term as part of Sunshine Week 2011. The many factors at play in each recommendation – vision, leadership, policy, implementation, etc. – make it difficult, if not impossible, to assign simple grades. Instead, we will explain the activities of the administration and Congress on the issues addressed in the recommendations and offer some insights on those actions.It should be noted that no administration could be expected to complete all of the recommendations contained in the 2008 report in just two years' time. There is a very real limit to resources and staff that can be brought to bear on the issue of government openness while still addressing the many other demands on government. Several of the recommendations were explicitly designed as long-term challenges that will take years of work to complete, and of course, the work of implementation is never done.

Secrecy Report Card 2005

September 1, 2005

The second annual report from OpenTheGovernment.org, found secrecy in 2004 extended to more classified activity, more federal advisory meetings, more new patents deemed "secret," more domestic surveillance, and more new state laws restricting public access to information.