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Editorial: If this is DC transparency, what’s opaque look like?

“This is the most transparent administration in history.”

– President Barack Obama, February 2013

If you define transparency the way the president does – that “every visitor that comes into the White House is now part of the public record. Every law we pass and every rule we implement we put online for everyone to see” – then you’re buying what he’s selling.

But if you believe posting the standard operations of a democracy online is a basic responsibility in an age where computers need child access controls and “Google” is a verb, you likely define government transparency as being able to ask a question of the system you pay for and get a timely answer. And then you understand that the White House claim is a bill of goods.

Despite self-serving declarations that this would be the most transparent administration in history, today there is a backlog of 160,000 requests for U.S. government documents – despite the president putting in the Federal Register that “Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions.”

Well, unless it doesn’t.

During two days of congressional hearings last week, that backlog in resolving Freedom of Information Act requests was revealed, along with examples of people waiting years before their document requests were denied, federal agencies redacting information that’s available elsewhere, even a public news release blacked out by the Federal Communications Commission.

And while the information age has spurred a serious increase in FOIA requests – more than 714,000 last year compared to 558,000 in 2009 – it has also put finding and vetting many answers a mouse click away. Yet the federal government has decreased the number of folks who click those mice – from a high of 4,400 in 2011 to about 3,800 in 2014. It smacks of typical recalcitrant bureaucratic tactics, understaffing a mandate you don’t really want to fulfill and punishing the public in the process.

Kind of like the Internal Revenue Service not having enough folks to answer calls or enough basic forms to hand out during tax season despite a budget of more than $10 billion a year.

The hearings revealed 28 of 100 agencies have backlogs of more than 1,000 requests. Taking the glass-is-half-full approach, the Justice Department says 72 out of 100 agencies have backlogs under 100 requests, 59 have fewer than 20 waiting and 29 have no backlog at all.

Prompting a cynic to ask if DOJ is putting lipstick on a pig and if those 29 had any FOIA requests to begin with.

The DOJ says agencies that have 1,000-plus document requests on hold must come up with a plan to reduce them. Seven years into Obama’s administration, that’s almost better never than late. And it should be noted it’s easy for Congress to criticize noncompliance with transparency laws, considering Congress exempted its records from FOIA.

The American public deserves answers, not platitudes, from its government, with the understanding that sometimes those answers will be “no.” Even the “most transparent” Obama administration should be able to see that.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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