A coalition of media groups today urged every U.S. Senator to support legislation that establishes a presumption of openness in law, encourages agencies to use public-friendly technology, and makes other changes to the way agencies respond to requests for information from the public.
The Sunshine in Government Initiative (SGI) sent a letter to every senator encouraging support for legislation that would improve the way federal agencies respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. “These changes would help ensure the government discloses information the way Congress intended a half century ago when Congress enacted the original Freedom of Information Act,” said Rick Blum, director of the Sunshine in Government Initiative. The coalition is composed of newspaper, media and journalist groups.
Citing the approaching 50th anniversary of the enactment of the federal FOIA on July 4, 1966, the coalition wrote, “now is the time for Congress to enact improvements to FOIA that will enhance government transparency and accountability.”
Despite long wait times, high fees to deter requests, and procedural hurdles, journalists have relied on FOIA for stories that show, for example, the slow government response to the water crisis in Flint, historically low prosecution rates for white collar crime, and whether the government found any parmesan cheese in food sold as parmesan cheese. (It didn’t.) FOIA was also critical to uncovering the long wait times and delays that veterans face obtaining benefits.
The bipartisan group of Senators completing work on the measure (S. 337) carries considerable clout in the Senate. The bill’s sponsors include Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the Chairman and ranking Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively, and John Cornyn (R-Tex.), another Judiciary Committee member who is part of the Senate Republican leadership.
The Senate could vote as early as next week, which would coincide with the annual Sunshine Week, the annual effort to appreciate the value and challenges of open government.
S. 337 would write into law the presumption of openness, give the federal FOIA ombudsman the independence that Congress intended when it established the Office of Government Information Services in 2007 to mediate disputes and recommend ways agencies can improve FOIA operations, and modernize FOIA technology at agencies. The measure also ends the ability of agencies to withhold historical records not otherwise exempt form disclosure that are created 25 years or more prior to a FOIA request solely because disclosure would reveal internal deliberations.
The Senate unanimously approved similar legislation at the end of 2014 but the bill’s sponsors could not overcome last-minute fears voiced about the potential impact on agencies that oversee the financial industry to push the legislation over the finish line.
The House of Representatives already passed a very similar bill in January. If the bill passes in the Senate, House and Senate negotiators would have to work out differences before sending the legislation to the President for his signature.
|Status:||H.R. 653 passed the U.S. House of Representatives|
|S. 337 awaiting floor vote (passed Senate Judiciary Committee)|
The FOIA reform bills take a number of steps to fix persistent problems that FOIA requesters face by improving the federal government’s handling of FOIA requests. H.R. 653 and S. 337:
- Strengthen the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) by clarifying the Office must speak with an independent voice. Currently OGIS must seek input from other agencies and the Office of Management and Budget before making its recommendations for improving FOIA available to the public. This limits what OGIS can say.
- Ensure future administrations start from a presumption of openness.That means agencies may withhold information only if they reasonably foresee that disclosure would cause specific, identifiable harm from one of the nine types of interests already protected by FOIA (such as personal privacy, national security and trade secrets). Agencies have used this same standard since 2009.
- Push agencies to modernize technology in responding to FOIA requests by creating a single FOIA portal to accept FOIA requests for any agency.
- Require agencies to submit annual FOIA processing statistics a month earlier each year so they are available for Sunshine Week.
- Limit the ability of agencies to keep internal deliberations confidential to a period of 25 years. Agencies would lose the ability to cite Exemption 5 (protecting internal deliberations) in denying requests if the information is more than 25 years old.
March 8, 2016
Rick Blum, Director