(Posted December 1999)
The Freedom of Information Act and the Federal Register are two important tools that Americans use, increasingly, to foster transparency in government. The knowledge they receive from these sources frequently translates into changes in public policy.
Take a look at how citizen groups make a difference in three areas of daily life.
The environment: The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and safeguard air, water, and land from pollution. One of its duties involves setting standards to limit the amount of pollution coming from the tailpipes of motor vehicles.
U.S. citizens involved in conservation groups recently scored a victory in changing the government’s plans to reduce air pollution. "I think we made a loud public racket and I think the EPA responded appropriately to that," says Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, a coalition of environmental organizations.
The case began in the late 1990s when the EPA began discussing more stringent rules for the emissions coming from automobile tailpipes.
Thousands of comments were received from auto manufacturers, oil companies, citizen groups, and individuals.
Several conservation organizations urged officials to close a "loophole" involving sport utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans, and light-duty trucks, which emit more pollution than passenger cars. When emission and gasoline efficiency standards were first enacted in the 1970s, these vehicles were exempt from the rules imposed on automobiles because they were generally used only on farms and construction sites. But by 1998, SUVs and light trucks accounted for about half of all new vehicle sales to the public and were used for everyday trips to shop and commute to work.
The EPA issued proposed regulations in early 1999 to impose more stringent pollution standards on all vehicles. Under the new standards, regular passenger cars are set to come into compliance by 2004. For the first time, the rules also require that SUVs and light trucks under 8,500 pounds meet the same standards by 2007.
During subsequent public hearings, numerous citizens and organizations used their rights to argue that even tougher standards would help the battle against air pollution. They urged the EPA to also include SUVs over 8,500 pounds in the regulations, instead of allowing them to be exempt. And they wanted to make vehicle manufacturers comply with the rules sooner than proposed.
Representatives for the auto industry made a very different public case, testifying that they couldn't possibly make the necessary changes before the proposed deadlines.
In late 1999, both sides scored a partial victory. The EPA announced that the heavier SUVs would be included in the regulations, but the timetable for making the changes would remain the same.
Taxes: Like many countries, the United States imposes an income tax on its citizens. The tax is administered by an agency within the Treasury Department called the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
American taxpayers have opportunities to influence the system for collecting revenue in a variety of ways, beginning with the creation of tax legislation. The actual tax laws are written by members of Congress and signed by the president after much debate and testimony from citizens, businesses, and lobbying groups.
The entire set of laws is referred to as the Internal Revenue Code, but it is just one part of the tax world. The IRS issues regulations that interpret the laws in greater detail. The entire system is quite complex, with nearly 50,000 pages of laws and IRS regulations that are available to the public on the IRS web site (www.irs.gov).
As part of its duties, the IRS creates tax forms for citizens to fill out to report their income. The agency also writes publications provided free to the public explaining the laws.
Even after tax legislation is passed, U.S. citizens can have an influence on how it is applied. For example, in 1998, a law was passed providing assistance to divorced and separated people who are sometimes held responsible for the tax debts of their former spouses.
As part of its customary practice, the government asked for comments on how to best implement the law. The National Taxpayers Union, a citizen organization, submitted suggestions on ways the IRS taxpayer forms and instructions could be made less complex for these "innocent spouses," according to its spokesman Pete Sepp. When the revised taxpayer IRS forms came out in 1999, they included easy-to-understand sections answering frequently asked questions on this issue. The IRS also added a new taxpayer publication to its library called Innocent Spouse Relief.
The National Taxpayers Union was pleased with the changes, Sepp says, although they didn't include everything the organization asked for. "But the entire policy-making process is a matter of compromise and settling for what is satisfactory rather than striving for what is perfect," he explains.
Besides, Sepp points out, there will be opportunities in the future to suggest further revisions to the forms. "Change is often made in incremental steps," he adds. In addition to creating tax forms, the IRS has the job of collecting money from citizens. This means that each taxpayer's return form is studied for accidental or deliberate miscalculations. The final stage of the process is when the agency examines or "audits" some taxpayers because it suspects errors or cheating.
Although the exact formula the IRS uses for deciding which taxpayers are audited is a secret, citizens have been given some insight into the audit selection process. In fact, one organization, called the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), devotes itself entirely to obtaining data from the IRS and other agencies to ensure the system remains equitable.
"Fairness is an essential component of enforcement because without it, public support for a program can easily evaporate, forcing the government to spend more and more of its revenues on coercive efforts to force compliance," explains Sue Long, the co-director of TRAC, which is associated with Syracuse University in New York.
In one of its efforts, TRAC filed Freedom of Information Act requests and discovered that taxpayers in some regions of the country are audited more often than those in other U.S. regions. When the sensitive data was made public, it was discussed extensively in Congress and the media.
This is a classic example of a group using its legal rights to promote transparency in government. "The variations uncovered in the agency's own data are considerable and the American public is fully justified in asking why," Ms. Long says. "The IRS has an obligation to provide a no-nonsense answer." Although the final resolution is still pending the matter has been ventilated in public. Even as organizations like the National Taxpayers Union and TRAC continue to monitor and influence the IRS, the tax agency itself began a program recently to receive more citizen input. Around the country, groups of volunteers called "Citizen Advocacy Panels" now meet to identify problems and make recommendations.
"The IRS will benefit greatly from a fresh perspective on our service as seen through our customers' eyes," says IRS Commissioner Charles O. Rossotti.
Food and drugs: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates drugs, medical devices, food, and cosmetics to make sure they are safe and pure. The agency is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Part of the FDA's job is to ensure that consumer products are labeled truthfully. This mandate resulted in a major regulatory change recently that affects nearly all Americans.
The FDA took action after it received numerous complaints about the labels on non-prescription or "over-the-counter" drugs, such as aspirin and cough syrup that are dispensed in stores without a doctor's prescription. Consumers found the wording on the packages of some of these medicines difficult to understand. Elderly people had an especially hard time reading the tiny, compressed type.
Consequently, the FDA issued new mandatory regulations for drug makers. The rules, which gradually phase in until 2005, were written after more than 2,000 comments from citizen groups and industry representatives were analyzed by the FDA. They require instructions on medicine to be in large type and obligate drug companies to include clear warnings about possible dangers on the bottle.
Warnings on a label can even wind up on something as simple as snack foods as a result of public pressure on the FDA. In another case where transparency in rulemaking made a difference, citizens were able to persuade the government to place a notice on the packages of certain potato chips and other snack foods containing a fat substitute called Olestra. After 10 years of deliberations, the FDA had approved Olestra for use in 1996 after determining it was safe. Many consumers wanted to buy products with the "fake fat" because they were low in calories. But some health advocacy groups and medical representatives testified in public hearings that the substance should be banned because it might cause gastrointestinal problems.
As part of the approval, the FDA required manufacturers to include a warning on the back of all snack packages containing Olestra. Consumers are cautioned that the product may cause "abdominal cramping" and other side effects.
The FDA regulations involving Olestra and the other case studies cited here illustrate how the American system of public policy works. Citizens have the right to know about the activities of their government and they can use the information to influence decisions that affect their lives, both in small and large ways. People in the United States know that transparency in government, as practiced in the real world, has its flaws, including the fact that permitting ordinary citizens to influence the government regulatory process can be slow and even expensive. But, as Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, put it in 1791: "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it." Most Americans, like Jefferson, believe that allowing the sun to shine on government activities is worth these drawbacks. In return, U.S. citizens receive the benefits of a transparent, participatory democracy.
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