Thursday, March 24, 2005

Fielder’s Choice
By Barry Burleson

Enjoying Day on Hill

Two weeks ago Pam and I traveled to Washington, D.C., for the National Newspaper Association’s 44th Annual Government Affairs Conference.

It was an honor to represent The South Reporter and the Mississippi Press Association and its membership.

We visited with Congressman Roger Wicker, Senator Trent Lott and some staff members working for Senator Thad Cochran during “Community Newspaper Day on the Hill” on Thursday, March 10.

We talked about several issues with our elected leaders, all of concern to community newspaper publishers across the country.

One of the most important is the Open Government Act of 2005 (S. 394) introduced by Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

The Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1966 as a tool for members of the media and the general public to obtain access to government records. It was subsequently amended in 1974, 1986 and most recently in 1996. However, the Senate committees responsible for FOIA have not held a hearing on the Act in over a decade. Many argue that key provisions of the law are being eroded, and it is no longer effectively serving its original purpose.

FOIA has become increasingly unwieldy in recent years. While agencies are supposed to adhere to deadlines for making request determinations, this rarely happens. Some agencies also take advantage of loopholes in the law to shield documents that are clearly public record. The law needs to be amended to restore the presumption of openness in government, close loopholes, and install meaningful incentives for agencies to produce records in a timely fashion — for the general public and the media.

Other issues discussed included postal reform, fax advertising, estate tax repeal and association health plans.

Congressman Wicker and some members of his staff joined us near the end of our lunch at the Library of Congress. We certainly appreciate him taking time from his busy schedule to greet us and talk about these issues. He was also the first to send us a follow-up letter.

He told us that interstate funding and progress in the north Mississippi area, including I-22 and I-69 and I-269 (all involving Marshall County), is high on the priority list. He said the growth is coming.

Senator Cochran, on our scheduled visit to his office later that afternoon, could not see us because of his involvement in an important vote at the time. His staff members were cordial and took notes on our concerns.

Late in the afternoon we visited in the office of Senator Lott, and near the end of an upbeat and informative meeting with members of his staff, he was able to get away from his busy Congressional agenda and talk with us, too.

The Day on the Hill was certainly the highlight of the conference.

We also heard from speakers during the conference — like Senator Cornyn, Senator Mitch McConnell, Congressman Lee Hamilton, Congressman John McHugh, Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Susan Collins, Andy Alexander, bureau chief of Cox Newspaper in Washington and chairman of the First Amendment Committee for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and Mark J. Warshawsky, assistant secretary for economic policy for the Department of Treasury.

Another highlight was a press briefing at the Department of State.

We did have time, too, for a little sight-seeing. We enjoyed a “Washington After Dark” tour of several memorials on Friday night, including the Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Memorial.

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