Access to Government Information In the United States Page: 1 of 4
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Order Code 97-71 GOV
Updated January 23, 2003
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Access to Government Information
In the United States
Harold C. Relyea
Specialist in American National Government
The Constitution of the United States makes no specific allowance for any one of
the co-equal branches to have access to information held by the others and contains no
provision expressly establishing a procedure for, or a right of, public access to
government information. Nonetheless, Congress has legislated various public access
laws. These include two records access statutes-the Freedom of Information Act (5
U.S.C. 552) and the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. 552a)-and two meetings access
statutes-the Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 U.S.C. App.) and the Government in
the Sunshine Act (5 U.S.C. 552b). Moreover, due to the American separation of powers
model of government, interbranch conflicts over the accessibility of information are
neither unexpected nor necessarily destructive. The federal courts, historically, have
been reluctant to review and resolve "political questions" involving information disputes
between Congress and the executive branch. Although there is considerable interbranch
cooperation, such conflicts probably will continue to occur on occasion.
History and Background
Throughout the first 150 years of the federal government, access to government
information does not appear to have been a major issue among the three branches or for
the citizenry. There were a few instances during this period when the President, for
reasons of maintaining the constitutional independence and equality of his branch,
vigorously resisted attempts by Congress and the courts to obtain executive records.
Furthermore, during this same era, an active federal public printing program was
established and effectively developed.
Following World War II, however, information came to be of limited availability
from federal departments and agencies. Conditioned by information restrictions prompted
by recent global hostilities, fearful of Cold War spies, intimidated by zealous loyalty
investigators within and outside of government, and anxious about various efforts at
reducing the executive workforce during the postwar reconversion, the federal
Congressional Research Service V The Library of Congress
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Relyea, Harold C. Access to Government Information In the United States, report, January 23, 2003; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc820925/m1/1/: accessed December 11, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.