Rep. Darrell Issa speaks at a South by Southwest conference in Austin. Photo courtesy Issa's office
Rep. Darrell Issa speaks at a South by Southwest conference in Austin. Photo courtesy Issa’s office

By Rep. Darrell Issa

At last week’s Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, the future was on display. Many San Diego companies shared their innovations to transform how people connect with each other and share information.

Returning from CES to Washington, DC, for a week of activity in Congress, I was struck by the differences in these two spaces. At CES, innovators were using technology to simplify access to information and connect people and resources. In Washington, I found a government light years behind.

As private citizens voluntarily share more information about themselves via the Internet, mobile apps, and social media, the government continues to collect information about us, while largely keeping secret many of its own activities.

This Washington mindset of one-way information sharing is both embarrassing and dangerous.

The federal government should work on the people’s behalf. As such, Americans have a right to know how the government spends taxpayer funds and the activities it engages in. Only under limited circumstances should information be prevented from disclosure.

To access information about the government’s actions, the general public can submit a request via an antiquated Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request. Most of the time, requests for documents from government agencies are mailed via the U.S. Postal Service or submitted via fax. If the same request is made of multiple agencies, be sure to send individual requests to each one. And, don’t forget the check, as the information is not always free.

In our information technology era, it should be simpler than current law allows for citizens to access information from their government.  Knowledge of what our government is doing and how it is spending our money is how we hold our government accountable. It is how we know when Washington is not acting in our best interest.

I have been working to open and modernize government my entire time in Congress. My legislation, the DATA Act, which was signed into law in 2014, is opening government finances to everyone via publicly downloadable data that is available in a centralized system and can be accessed with the click of your mouse day or night.

On the docket currently is my FOIA reform bill, which seeks to achieve a similar goal with respect to government activities beyond finances.

H.R. 653 will bring FOIA into the 21st century by providing that agencies process FOIA information requests from the public through a centralized web portal. Users will be able to submit requests in one location, where agencies can automatically post responsive records online for all to access.

Furthermore, the bill requires an unprecedented level of proactive disclosure. More information would be made available without each individual interested in the information needing to file a separate FOIA request to retrieve it. Agencies would be required to post records that are requested three or more times, and to review and disclose records of interest to the public.

These proactive disclosure requirements are intended to make information sharing a routine part of governing.

More important than the technology backbone is the shift in thinking this bill prescribes. The legislation mandates a “presumption of openness.” This presumption will shift from government secrecy to government disclosure of information, with exceptions in narrow, limited circumstances, such as national security. This moves the burden from the people to the bureaucrats, limiting excuses for secrecy and lowering the hurdles for citizens to see into their government.

Last week, my FOIA reforms to transform government limits into information passed the House of Representatives unanimously. A similar bipartisan proposal has already passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, with continued work, can be finalized and sent to the President to be signed into law this year.

At the next CES, I hope these FOIA reforms will be law and more power through information and transparency will be returned to the American people.

Rep. Darrell Issa represents California’s 49th District, which includes coastal San Diego from Del Mar north to the county line, Rancho Santa Fe, Vista, and much of southern Orange County. He is the immediate past chairman of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform.