The Department of Energy Improvement Act of 2011 (S. 1160) has been quietly introduced in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee. The committee ostensibly held a hearing on the bill on July 12, but it was largely ignored in lieu of two other bills on solar and geothermal energy, respectively.
So why should the public pay attention to this bill to “improve” DOE? Well, it would allow DOE to keep secret for five years any information about DOE awards from contracts, leases, grants, or cooperative agreements. DOE could withhold a wide variety of information from public disclosure, including proposals, proposal abstracts, supporting documents, business plans, and technical information, from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
S. 1160 would affect a very large amount of taxpayer money: in FY2010 alone, DOE handled more than $43.5 billion taxpayer dollars in contracts and grants, and had another $51 billion in loan guarantee authority. DOE has an abysmal program management record (particularly awards programs) and more secrecy would be a recipe for disaster. As just one example, the DOE’s Loan Guarantee Program has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office and DOE’s Inspector General for poor governance, management, and transparency.
FOIA is an incredibly important law, a “structural necessity in a real democracy,” as Justice Kennedy described it. President Obama agreed in his 2009 “Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act”: “In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act, which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and citizenry alike.”
FOIA already provides DOE with a mechanism to protect trade secrets and proprietary information from release to the public. S. 1160 would go further by allowing DOE to withhold all information from public review without justification, even though the awards come from taxpayer money.
It’s impossible to imagine a legitimate reason why you’d want to add more secrecy and opportunities for malfeasance to an agency with such a rotten management record. The possible explanation seems to be to avoid public scrutiny of DOE programs and financial deals that would reveal bad management, politically-motivated decision-making, and wasted taxpayer funds. This bill won’t improve DOE—it would make DOE even less accountable, plain and simple.