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Context of 'September 25, 1974: Ford Weighs Decision to Veto Freedom of Information Act Amendments'

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Representatives William Moorhead (D-PA) and Frank Horton (R-NY) cosponsor a series of amendments designed to improve the effectiveness of the 1966 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law is designed to make it easier for journalists, researchers, and citizens to see government records, but in practice the law is cumbersome: agencies have little impetus to produce documents in a timely manner, charge exorbitant fees for searching and copying documents, and too often battle FOIA requests in court. With Watergate fresh in legislators’ minds, the amendments to FOIA are welcome changes. The amendments expand the federal agencies covered, and mandate expediting of document and record requests. But as the bill nears final passage, senior officials of the Ford White House are mobilizing to challenge it. The CIA, Defense and Treasury Departments, Civil Service, and many on President Ford’s staff, including Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney, all urge a veto. Most bothersome is the provision that a court can review a federal decision not to release a document requested under FOIA. Ford will veto the bill, but Congress will override the vetoes (see November 20, 1974). (Dubose and Bernstein 2006, pp. 29-30)

President Ford, weighing whether or not to sign into law a set of amendments strengthening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA—see January 1974 - September 1974), is given a memo by aide Ken Cole. In it, Cole writes: “There is little question that the legislation is bad on the merits, the real question is whether opposing it is important enough to face the political consequences. Obviously, there is a significant political disadvantage to vetoing a Freedom of Information bill, especially just before an election, when your administration’s theme is one of openness and candor.” (Lopez et al. 11/23/2004) Ford will veto the bill, but Congress will override his veto (see November 20-21, 1974).

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), passed in 1966, is significantly strengthened by a series of amendments (see January 1974 - September 1974) which become law over President Ford’s veto. Ford initially wanted to sign the bill as soon as it came to his desk from Congress, but was persuaded to veto it by Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, and the head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Antonin Scalia. Rumsfeld and Cheney argued that the bill would promote leaks to the media from within the administration, and Scalia wrote a brief judging that the bill was unconstitutional. But Congress, weary of opposition after almost 11 years of investigations, reports, and hearings (and out of patience with executive foot-dragging after the Watergate investigations), is ready to pass the bill. The House of Representatives votes overwhelmingly to override Ford’s veto by a 371-31 vote. The Senate votes to override the veto 65-27. As a result, government attempts to hinder FOIA requests—subjecting requesters to unusual delays, charging requesters exorbitant prices for copying and searching, subjecting requesters to bureaucratic run-arounds, mixing confidential and exempt materials with non-exempt materials and using that juxtaposition to refuse to release materials, and forcing requesters to file costly lawsuits to force compliance—will be markedly constrained. (Lopez et al. 11/23/2004; Roberts 2008, pp. 10)


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