House Unanimously Passes Freedom of Information Improvements

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.