The Freedom of Information Act at age 50

Michael Lemov

It is now 50 years since Congressman John Moss’ greatest triumph, the Freedom of Information Act. Since then, the law has been improved here and adopted, in one form or another, in over 100 countries.

Moss was a tireless Congressman from Sacramento who, in 1970 hired me, a young New York lawyer whom he hardly knew, to help him enact the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Motor Vehicle Safety Amendments, the Magnuson-Moss FTC Act and the Freedom of Information Act Amendments, all of which he did over the next six years.

Moss never stopped pushing Congress to pass new, important legislation and conduct major oversight investigations into the effectiveness of federal programs. That was an era when Congress actually did something, other than take summer recesses with major legislation still unfinished and hold lengthy partisan hearings. Moss a Democrat, accomplished all these things and much more with help from Republican members of the House and Senate.

The need to enact strong consumer protection laws and then see that they were carried out was one reason Moss was so tenacious — it took him 12 years — in pushing through the original Freedom of Information Act in 1966. He had to fight for the law over the opposition of Lyndon Johnson, a president of his own party. Moss thought public information on the government’s actions and non-actions could help Congress and the press in monitoring the performance of federal agencies. Some may be surprised to learn his chief House ally in the fight for FOIA was a young Republican from Illinois, Donald Rumsfeld.

As I interviewed Moss for a book about his life, I asked whether the Freedom of Information Act had been all he hoped for. “If you ask me if we are better off now than before we passed it,” he said, “I would definitely say yes. If you ask me are we where we should be on open government, I would say, not by a long shot. ... The battle never ends.”

Michael Lemov is the author of “People’s Warrior: John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumer Rights.”