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Cartwright, Lofgren, Quigley Introduce Bill to Increase Transparency in Government

Sep 27, 2019
Press Release

Washington, DC – On Friday, Representatives Matt Cartwright (PA-08), Zoe Lofgren (CA-19), and Mike Quigley (IL-05) introduced legislation to increase transparency and accountability within the U.S. government. The bill will give the American people greater insight into how the executive branch interprets and implements federal law.

Currently, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) serves as legal advisor to the President and all executive branch agencies, issuing legal opinions and often acting as the final authority on how laws are to be interpreted and what actions are permissible. However, these legal opinions and interpretations are routinely withheld from the U.S. Congress and the American people, creating what can be effectively described as a large body of secret law.

The OLC SUNLIGHT Act will increase transparency by requiring that the OLC’s legal opinions and interpretations are published and available to the American people. This requirement will extend not only to upcoming opinions, but will also apply retroactively to previously unpublished final opinions. For cases where information must be withheld for reasons regarding national security or foreign policy, the bill provides for limited redactions and carves out clearly defined exceptions, ensuring maximum accountability.

“We can’t be kept in the dark about our own laws,” said Congressman Cartwright, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “The secrecy regarding the OLC’s legal opinions is a disservice to our democracy, the rule of law, and Congress’ hard work. There is a long and unfortunate history of controversial and dangerous opinions coming out of OLC, in cases that we often do not know about or understand for months or years. That has to stop.”

“I think the American people would be outraged if Congress were allowed to pass laws in secret that no one—outside of a few senior Members—could even read. However, that is exactly what happens today in the Executive branch,” said Representative Lofgren. “The American people have a right to know what the Executive thinks it legally can and cannot do. Otherwise, it is impossible to ensure and safeguard their legal and constitutional rights.”

“These are challenging and unparalleled times for transparency. Since the beginning, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has done President Trump’s bidding, by creating secretive and legally dubious opinions that allowed Trump to implement his first travel ban, prohibited Congress from obtaining Trump’s tax returns, and most recently interfered with the whistleblower’s efforts to speak to Congress,” said Congressman Quigley. “That is why I am pleased to support this legislation that makes these opinions readily available, so the public can understand the innerworkings of our government and keep our public servants honest.”

Specifically, the OLC SUNLIGHT Act would:

  • Require that all final opinions issued by the Office of Legal Counsel be made publicly available in their entirety as soon as is practicable,
  • Carve out carefully defined exceptions to be met if final opinions are to be withheld from the public, and
  • Require the publication of a complete list of final OLC opinions, to be updated immediately every time an OLC opinion becomes final.

OLC opinions are responsible for critical interpretations of law at the heart of national controversies. These alarming opinions concluded, for instance, that: 

  • A sitting President cannot be indicted; 
  • Congress may not obtain the President’s tax returns;
  • President Trump’s first travel ban was lawful;
  • A President’s advisors cannot be compelled to testify before Congress;
  • Certain targeted drone strikes are legal;
  • “Enhanced interrogations” do not constitute torture;
  • Domestic surveillance is allowable despite the violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The bill is supported by many organizations, including: Campaign for Accountability, Campaign for Liberty, Cause of Action Institute, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Clean Elections Texas, Coalition to Preserve, Protect & Defend, Common Cause, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Government Information Watch, Lincoln Network, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, National Security Archive, National Security Counselors, Project on Government Oversight, Protect Democracy, and the R Street Institute.

The OLC SUNLIGHT Act is co-sponsored by: Rep. Blumenauer (OR-03), Rep. Cardenas (CA-29), Rep. Carson (IN-07), Rep. Clay (MO-01), Rep. Davis (CA-53), Rep. Gomez (CA-34), Rep. Johnson, Jr. (GA-04), Rep. Hill (CA-25), Rep. Holmes Norton (DC-At-Large), Rep. Phillips (MN-03), Rep. Raskin (MD-08), Rep. Tlaib (MI-13), and Rep. Vargas (CA-51).