Access to Government Information in the United States: A Primer

Wendy Ginsberg and Michael Greene at Congressional Research Service: “No provision in the U.S. Constitution expressly establishes a procedure for public access to executive branch records or meetings. Congress, however, has legislated various public access laws. Among these laws are two records access statutes,

  • the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA; 5 U.S.C. §552), and
  • the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. §552a),

and two meetings access statutes,

  •  the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA; 5 U.S.C. App.), and
  • the Government in the Sunshine Act (5 U.S.C. §552b).

These four laws provide the foundation for access to executive branch information in the American federal government. The records-access statutes provide the public with a variety of methods to examine how executive branch departments and agencies execute their missions. The meeting-access statutes provide the public the opportunity to participate in and inform the policy process. These four laws are also among the most used and most litigated federal access laws.

While the four statutes provide the public with access to executive branch federal records and meetings, they do not apply to the legislative or judicial branches of the U.S. government. The American separation of powers model of government provides a collection of formal and informal methods that the branches can use to provide information to one another. Moreover, the separation of powers anticipates conflicts over the accessibility of information. These conflicts are neither unexpected nor necessarily destructive. Although there is considerable interbranch cooperation in the sharing of information and records, such conflicts over access may continue on occasion.

This report offers an introduction to the four access laws and provides citations to additional resources related to these statutes. This report includes statistics on the use of FOIA and FACA and on litigation related to FOIA. The 114th Congress may have an interest in overseeing the implementation of these laws or may consider amending the laws. In addition, this report provides some examples of the methods Congress, the President, and the courts have employed to provide or require the provision of information to one another. This report is a primer on information access in the U.S. federal government and provides a list of resources related to transparency, secrecy, access, and nondisclosure….(More)”