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FOIA Reform Looking Possible in Lame Duck Congress

UPDATE: FOIA reform is still possible in the 113th Congress, but time is running out. In order for this important legislation to go into effect, the House of Representatives must schedule it for a vote today before they adjourn tomorrow for the year. Last weekend, hundreds of open government supporters raised their voices via Twitter, Facebook, phone, and email to tell Senator Rockefeller to lift his “hold” on the bill so that it could clear the Senate. While most mainstream media largely ignored the dramatic last-minute hold, this grassroots campaign worked and the bill passed the Senate, unanimously, once Senator Rockefeller backed down. After such a tough fight to get it out of the Senate, it would be a shame to see this widely supported, bipartisan reform go down the drain because it never made it on to the schedule for a vote in the House.  

This week, the Project On Government Oversight sent a letter asking Senators to consider cosponsoring the FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 (S. 2520) before the end of the year. The bipartisan bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) would bring many welcome changes to the landmark information access law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). After unanimously passing the Senate Judiciary Committee, this bill is making its way to the Senate Floor.

Originally enacted in 1966, FOIA created a way for all citizens to obtain information about the federal government. FOIA is being used more than ever before, with over 700,000 requests submitted in 2013. However, agency compliance with the law has been inconsistent and frustrating for many requesters. Slow response times, high fees, and excessive discretionary withholding have long contributed to the discontent of the requester community. This bill addresses some of the biggest problems and sets the stage for future reform. It will:

  • Codify the presumption of openness by requiring agencies to release responsive records unless prohibited by statute or if disclosure would result in foreseeable harm
  • Address the overuse of “exemption 5” to FOIA, which covers “inter-and intra-agency records” by creating a 25-year limit on withholding pre-decisional agency documents
  • Tackle some of the procedural inefficiencies of FOIA by encouraging proactive disclosures of frequently requested documents and by clarifying when agencies can and cannot charge fees when they exceed statutory deadlines
  • Strengthen the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), the FOIA ombudsman, by requiring that agencies notify requestors regarding the availability of alternative dispute resolution options through OGIS, in lieu of litigation

With this Congress quickly coming to a close, it is important to move FOIA reform forward. The effectiveness of this important law has been decreasing, and S. 2520 is a necessary and bipartisan effort to reform and reverse that decreased effectiveness. While the bill does not include all the changes we would like to see in FOIA, it contains many improvements and would go a long way to making the law more effective, user friendly, and in line with the original spirit of the law—to make the federal government open and accessible to its citizens.

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz
Director of Public Policy, POGO

Photograph of Elizabeth Liz Hempowicz is the Director of Public Policy for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Government Secrecy, Advocacy, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Authors: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz

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