Access to Government Information In the United States: A Primer

Source: Wendy Ginsberg, Congressional Research Service, CRS Report for Congress, 97-71, January 16, 2013

No provision in the U.S. Constitution expressly establishes a procedure for public access to government records or meetings. Congress, however, has legislated various public access laws.
Among these laws are two records access statutes,
• the Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act or FOIA; 5 U.S.C. §552), and
• the Privacy Act (5 U.S.C. §552a),
and two meetings access statutes,
• the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA; 5 U.S.C. App.), and
• the Government in the Sunshine Act (5 U.S.C. §552b).
These four laws provide the foundation for access to executive branch information in the American federal government.

While the four statutes provide the public with access to executive branch federal records and meetings, they do not apply to the legislative or judicial branches of the U.S. government. The American separation of powers model of government provides a collection of formal and informal methods that the branches can use to provide information to one another. Moreover, the separation of powers anticipates conflicts over the accessibility of information. These conflicts are neither unexpected nor necessarily destructive. Although there is considerable interbranch cooperation in the sharing of information and records, such conflicts over access may continue on occasion.

This report offers an introduction to the four access laws and provides citations to additional resources related to these statutes. This report includes statistics on the use of FOIA and FACA and on litigation related to FOIA. The 113th Congress may have an interest in overseeing the implementation of these laws or may consider amending the laws. In addition, this report provides some examples of the methods Congress, the President, and the courts have employed to provide or require the provision of information to one another. This report is a primer on information access in the U.S. federal government and provides a list of resources related to transparency, secrecy, access, and nondisclosure.