By Tonda Rush, General Counsel, National Newspaper Association
A bipartisan team of senators on July 23 introduced a bill to repair a gaping hole created by the U.S. Supreme Court in June that keeps food stamp payments to retailers secret.
The Open and Responsive Government Act, S 2220, is offered by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-IA; John Cornyn, R-TX; Patrick Leahy, D-VT; and Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, to overrule a Freedom of Information Act case brought by a grocers’ industry group to force the government not to release grocers’ food stamp revenue totals. The Supreme Court agreed with the retailers and said the information should be treated as confidential, even though the retailers do not submit the information to the government. The revenue figures come from a compilation of card swipes by food stamp beneficiaries into a database compiled for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
National Newspaper Association argued in 2018-19 on Capitol Hill and before the Court that the information was paid for by tax dollars and was about a program funded by tax dollars and should be public.
Grassley said when he introduced the bill:
“The people’s business ought to be available to the people. It’s only through public oversight and transparency that we ensure government programs are operating as intended, without any waste, fraud, or abuse. Transparency is something worth fighting for, and it seems we’re always in an uphill battle to keep the sunlight shining on government. This balanced and bipartisan bill responds to recent court rulings and regulatory actions, restoring pro-transparency principles and making crystal clear where Congress stands on the public’s right to know ”
NNA President Andrew Johnson, publisher of the Dodge County Pionier, Mayville, Wisconsin, expressed his appreciation to the four sponsors of the bill.
“NNA is always concerned when freedom of information is restricted. While we understand why the retailers would prefer not to have the origins of some business revenue made public, the fact remains that the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that produces this revenue for them is a highly-visible public program that Congress is constantly reviewing and tweaking. This is an area where transparency should govern. More importantly, the Supreme Court in its decision knocked a big hole in
FOIA not only with respect to business information held by agencies but even to make secret business information that is about a business and not by a business. We welcome the oversight of Congress here.”
The bill is also supported by a news media coalition that focuses on FOIA. The statement of the News Media Coalition for Open Government, of which NNA is a member, is here http://foropengov.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/NMOG-FOIA-Bill-Statement.pdf