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House committee calls for less secrecy in federal agencies

WASHINGTON—In a rare attempt to place restrictions on the executive branch, a House of Representatives committee has approved legislation that would remove secrecy veils from some government documents, ban government propaganda in the United States and limit lobbying by former government employees.

The measure reflects some congressional unease over government secrecy, but the Senate and House must act before it could become law. The legislation could be considered in the House later this month as part of a bill to change lobbying and ethics laws.

The provisions passed the House Government Reform Committee this week by a bipartisan vote of 32-0.

Government watchdog groups cheered the proposal as a way to reduce unnecessary government secrecy and to place restrictions on the so-called "revolving door" between government work and private business.

"This Congress can't seem to do anything on a bipartisan basis, much less dealing with controversial issues such as access to information, whistleblowers and so forth," said Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, which advocates for more openness in government. "It is encouraging on that score alone."

The key aspects of the legislation would:

_Require executive branch officials to report all contacts with lobbyists or other private-sector officials who want to influence government action. While the provision would exempt the president, vice president and their chiefs of staff, it's designed to restrict the kind of secrecy that surrounded Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force of lobbyists and executives early in the Bush administration.

_Eliminate the use of certain classifications to keep government documents out of the public eye. Aftergood said that the Bush administration increasingly has used designations such as "sensitive but unclassified" or "for official use only" to restrict access to documents, including some executive branch phone directories. The administration already is reviewing such classifications in an effort to streamline their use.

_Ban spending of government money on "propaganda" within the United States. The provision is designed to prohibit spending on promotional material that federal agencies passed off as news programming or as the independent views of media opinion makers.

_Prohibit former lobbyists or private-sector executives who enter the government workforce from giving special treatment to their past employers. Officials who leave the government wouldn't be able to lobby their former agencies for two years, a one-year increase over current law.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the government reform committee's top Democrat, said it remains to be seen whether the full Congress would accept the changes approved by the committee.

"I won't handicap this question," he said, "except to say that how this issue is resolved will say a lot about the character and integrity of this Congress."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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