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House Unanimously Passes Freedom of Information Improvements

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Nearly fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The law was a game changer for supporters of government transparency, but its execution has been less than perfect—inaccurate application and overuse of exemptions, faulty searches, and large backlogs have unfortunately become the norm.

Last week, the House of Representatives passed important legislation that will go a long way towards reforming FOIA. The FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act of 2014 (FOIA Act, H.R. 1211), cosponsored by House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), was passed in a unanimous vote, an uncommon feat in today’s polarized political atmosphere.

The universal, bipartisan support speaks to the clear necessity of reforming FOIA. The bill would create a government-wide, online portal for visitors to make FOIA requests and view regularly requested documents. The centralized site would be run by the Office of Management and Budget. Currently, FOIA requestors must go through different agencies and offices with different procedures, making searches difficult and leading to long delays.

Other reforms in H.R. 1211 include establishing an open government advisory committee, requiring all agencies to update their FOIA regulations, and providing the Office of Government Information Services with the ability to submit reports and testimony directly to Congress and the President. The bill also encourages more proactive disclosures, and puts into statute the current administrative policy of a “presumption of openness,” with which agencies should review FOIA requests.

The bill has likely been a catalyst for other reforms. President Obama has committed to similar actions in the U.S. National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership, but any executive orders he makes could easily be overturned by the next president. The FOIA Act, on the other hand, binds the improvements to statute.

In all, the FOIA Act will take important steps to make FOIA work better for the American people— but the bill didn’t go as far as would be ideal. The Project On Government Oversight helped to organize support for the House legislation and suggested further improvements that should be made to the Senate version, which is still being edited, in a letter co-signed by 26 other organizations. The cosignatories are from across the ideological spectrum, including Public Citizen, Sunlight Foundation, and the Society of Professional Journalists.

From the letter:

While the House bill reflects several of our recommendations to improve FOIA for the American people, there is still more that must be done. We look forward to working with the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance legislation with additional reforms, including provisions to curb the overuse and abuse of certain exemptions….Additionally, we hope that the Senate Judiciary Committee will put in place a much stronger requirement that agencies make all records that have been reviewed for release available to the public.

We hope that the Senate will incorporate such reforms into its own version of the bill.

“As citizen watchdogs, Americans have the right to keep an eye on their government and are entitled to a federal government that is both transparent and accountable. Disclosure should be timely, accurate, and routine,” Issa said in a statement.

Improving FOIA has been a long-time goal of POGO. Last year, Director of Public Policy Angela Canterbury testified before Issa, Cummings, and the rest of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and suggested a number of the FOIA reforms that have now been passed in the House FOIA Act. POGO would like to thank Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Cummings for advancing these reforms. POGO will continue to work with them, as well as with Senate FOIA champions. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) have made the most recent, significant improvements to the law. Look for more on FOIA during Sunshine Week, a nation-wide celebration of open government from March 17-22.

By: Avery Kleinman
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Government Secrecy, FOIA

Authors: Avery Kleinman

Submitted by cyberman at: March 9, 2014
My experience with the FOIA responsible employees at the DOE is mostly unsatisfactory. When I requested the names of the employees that had lied about their academic backgrounds (which had been on the national news) DOE simultaneously said they could not find the names and then ruled essentially that the privacy of the dishonest employees was more important than exposing them to the public and did not respond to my concerns that these individuals may have been granted Q clearances - positions of great trust including access to nuclear weapons information - by the same people, potentially their friends, denying the request. Another time they pulled the old Glomar excuse for not answering a request. Another FOIA is about 12 years old still without an answer. Appeals are handled by another internal unit in the same Department and it has been my experience that little is done to objectively review staff denial decisions. I would like to see the Senate and House empower requesters with more muscle than extant statutory authority provides An expensive appeal process to a court which most of us simply cannot afford is not often a viable alternative . Among the possibilities is a unit in the DOJ who can decide whether the agency's actions are appropriate including whether there is conflict of interest that must be considered in the Departmental decisions . Such a unit would in effect represent the citizen not the government. Just because an agency can find a statutory denial rationale (easily done) does not mean it should necessarily be utilized in every case. Or, perhaps congress should consider authorizing an interagency review group composed of career experts similar to the Interagency Security Classification Appeals Panel except significantly broaden its functions and authority to provide an independent review of all contested FOIA denials. Unless something is done to provide citizens with an inexpensive, independent and fair appeals process after agency FOIA denials and appeals, all the meaningful cards are in the hands of the Departments/Agencies and none are in the hands of the citizen requesters. A democracy cannot work without governmental transparency and many feel this democracy is simply not working. Transparency, if this is indeed really a congressional and administration goal, must give more tools to the requesters that more closely conform to a fair process and not one heavily handed administered by strong and wealthy lawyered up departments. Pending appeals to such a newly establish interagency review group should be posted on line before the decisions are made so the rest of the citizens have notice that a particular denial for information is being processed by the interagency FOIA appeals panel. This is to help avoid political interference and provide some knowledgeable citizen pressure to keep things as honest and fair as possible for the requesters who have been denied information by the departments and agencies. And one more idea. With trust in government at unprecedented lows, hasn't the time finally come to include the White House and congress in the FOIA process? Many citizens are appalled by some of the things the White House and Congress does but have no way, as citizens, to compel these high and mighty folks with so many funding sources to communicate with citizens to find out what is really going on. Many citizens are justifiably angry that the White House and the Congress essentially ignore their requests for information. The time has come to expand the FOIA right now to cover, but without many current withholding exemptions, these two institutions. Here is an opportunity, buttressed by wonderful progress in information technology, to increase trust in government instead of seeing the omnipotent elected representatives successfully and repetitively hide from the same laws they compel the Departments and Agencies to follow. To continue this practice seems counter productive to strengthening transparency and trust. Or are they simply past caring about strengthening the fundamentals of our democracy?
Submitted by Dave at: March 8, 2014
So glad to learn this news. I've been following the FOIA news, and this is quite the icing on the cake for me. Although, as the article mentions, the act purposed and passed in the House didn't take it as far as we wanted it is a step in the right direction. Let us hope for more improvements as time goes on BUT, this is a great start! BRAVO POGO...
Submitted by bobbi at: March 6, 2014
YAY! and thanks so much for the Good Work!!
Submitted by Dennis Bohner (Who's nick?) at: March 6, 2014
The classification system also needs oversight. One that can withstand the vagaries of political winds. Disputes should have a neutral forum empaneled to have full arbitration powers that can not be overruled. National Security does not demand never ending sequestration of information about ANY topic. So lets shoot for the moon and rid ourselves of the Security State for a secure state.

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