There’s a basic principle of U.S. governance that information about the workings of government should be available to the public. This concept is at the root of the 50-year-old Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It is also why we have the Federal Register, continually published since 1935. Though separate, both of these tools work together to ensure government transparency. The Federal Register is literally a daily journal of the government-agency actions, proposed rules, presidential orders, and the like—all located on a website whose specific mission is to “make it easier for citizens and communities to understand the regulatory process and to participate in Government decision-making.” FOIA, meanwhile, allows citizens to request the type of information that underpins those internal discussions.
Under the extremely nascent presidency of Donald Trump, however, forces have already been marshaled that make it far more difficult for citizens to have any coherent sense of government actions.
To be fair, even with the tools currently in place, there has always been plenty of secrecy and back-room dealing that remains entirely opaque and unavailable to the citizenry, particularly because things like verbal discussions are never memorialized. But this administration’s level of chaos—in which major channels of government information are opened, closed, diverted, changed, partially restored—effectively functions as a suppressor of political speech. Individuals cannot participate in the civic life of a country where information availability is capricious and driven by political whim.
The new (ab)normal has given us an ever-shifting, slippery landscape where it is impossible to get our footing. At this point, it’s virtually impossible for members of the public, for journalists, for employees of government agencies, even, to discern which agencies are currently allowed to communicate in an unrestricted way; which agencies are currently allowed to communicate, but only after getting those communications cleared by political appointees; and which agencies or sub-agencies are completely barred from discussing certain matters.
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Press freedoms are under attack now, more than ever.
An example: Within the span of roughly 48 hours, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was informed that the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), which conducts the agency’s in-house research, was under a blanket gag order. They couldn’t release any public-facing documents like news releases, photos, or social media content. The ARS conducts research on things like the level of arsenic in rice, the roots of certain foodborne illnesses, and the use of antibiotics in large-scale agricultural production. Importantly, it also researches the effects of climate change as they relate to agriculture and food supply.
One day later, the ARS communications ban was lifted, but employees were instructed that they would be required to “review their websites, blog posts and other social media and, consistent with direction you will receive from the [White House] Office of Communication, remove references to policy priorities and initiatives of the previous Administration.”
While the ARS is apparently now (moderately) free to communicate again, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), also part of the USDA, appears to still be prohibited from doing any public-facing communication, such as press releases, email, or updating the website. FNS administers vital programs like WIC (the special supplemental nutrition program for women and children) and free and reduced-price school lunches, and it regularly issues data on its nutrition assistance programs. This kind of bar on public-facing information ensures that we don’t get reliable data on the success of programs designed to help poor people, which makes it all the easier to justify cutting those sorts of programs.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an agency Trump clearly reviles, initially faced a freeze on the issuance of all grants and contracts and a gag order. It appears the freeze has been walked back and may be lifted by the weekend, but the agency is now faced with an edict that Trump’s political appointees review all studies or data before release to the public. Given the generally anti-regulatory, anti-EPA tenor of those appointees, this could functionally act as a gag order anyway, barring the agency from releasing information on, for example, climate change.
It’s unclear as to whether some sub-agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services are also under a freeze. It may simply be a (not entirely unusual) ban on issuing new regulations until administration officials can review them.
Meanwhile, agencies with a focus on the causes and effects of climate change, such as the National Park Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, face administration-imposed social media blackouts, which has led to the phenomenon of “alternative” agency Twitter accounts. These accounts, ostensibly run by members of the agencies, tweet facts about climate change and other material the administration is possibly seeking to suppress.
It’s impossible to keep up with. On Thursday, January 26 alone, the Border Patrol chief either quit or was removed—no one knows for sure—and the entire senior management team at the State Department was fired, after initial reports they had resigned.
All of this chaos—restrictions on communication followed by rollbacks of restrictions, followed by social media blackouts, followed by firings—make it much harder for the public to learn anything about the work of the government. At the most basic level, the government is funded by taxpayers, and taxpayers have a right to know what they are paying for. Equally important, however: An informed citizenry is an empowered citizenry, one that can put pressure on elected officials and (presumably) get results.
Sure, much of the material that is currently out of public reach is likely subject to FOIA and would be available via request. But responses to FOIA requests often take months, if not years. And when they are received, so much of the content is marked out or redacted that the documents are rendered nonsensical; the public would be deprived of critical information for a long time. Even under the Obama administration, FOIA requests were routinely delayed or improperly denied. Members of the press are already fearful that the new administration will be even worse about responding to requests for government data.
And sure, some of the material might leak, but that raises other problems. Leakers can have agendas—they’re leaking material with a specific goal of influencing coverage of the material or some other outcome. That’s far different than the public—and journalists—having free and robust access to the entirety of an agency’s decision-making process and output. Additionally, leaking is an entirely unreliable way to ensure a continued flow of information. Employees get fired or moved around or decide the risk isn’t worth it, and then the information source dries up.
In order for citizens to engage in unfettered political speech, they need full access to the workings of government. Having that compromised by perpetual disorder and political control of neutral scientific facts means that the United States grows farther away from a functional democracy each day.